Why CIOs Should Care About Blockchain

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Like most people working in business technology, I focus primarily on areas that can help customers solve real, immediate problems. Of course, I like to keep an eye out for emerging trends in areas outside my purview, but as a general rule (and much to my family’s chagrin), I tend to ignore trendy topics that dominate dinner table conversation for a hot minute – what I think of as the Spice Girls of the tech world. 

That’s where I had relegated Blockchain, which I had lumped in along with cryptocurrencies as one of those things I’d let my better half look into. To my surprise, however, Blockchain is starting to play a big – and growing – role in my work-life, and the world of databases where I spend much of my time. 

Blockchain is about much more than the Bitcoins of the world, although I can see why the technology is so foundational to cryptocurrencies; its fundamental attributes of security, authenticity (what Blockchain folks call “immutability”), and strict recording of events can be applied to many applications, from financial data to contracts like property titles or government records.  

In other words, if your organization stores or manages data that’s valuable enough for someone to want to alter, there’s a use case for Blockchain.

Not as complicated as it sounds

In addition to relevance, I struggled with the looming question of complexity – what on earth am I going to need to do to use Blockchain in an enterprise environment?

As it turns out, it’s much less messy and complicated to implement than you might imagine. For example, when we consider Blockchain, many of us think of decentralized peer-to-peer apps that only permit consensus-based data changes. In other words, any addition, subtraction or other change must be validated by other participants in a given transaction before it can be written into the chain – and once it’s written, it cannot be altered unilaterally.

That might lead you to conclude that you’ll have to re-architect applications around that peer-to-peer consensus, the way cryptocurrency works, which would be quite a headache. It turns out that you don’t. For “crypto-secure” data management, you can create immutable (or unchangeable) tables where the data is cryptographically chained inside the database, but that look like any other table to outside applications. This means that you can have a regular looking table that will accept inserts, but no updates, deletes, or truncations.

Now remember, it’s called a block… chain – for a reason. There’s a hash key automatically generated for each of the rows in the table that is based partly on the key from the previous row, establishing a chain that makes it easy to identify any disruption either within or among the rows. 

Any modification to data in a Blockchain table breaks the cryptographic chain because the hash value of the row will change. So, the chain-line characteristic is what proves the authenticity of the data in the table.

In addition, with a Blockchain table, even if someone has the necessary credentials and has permission to make changes to the data, their actions are recorded for all to see. (In a way, this characteristic alone can ward off attacks. It’s a little bit like posting a “video surveillance cameras are in operation” sign at the convenience store.)

Other techniques, such as end-user data signing and cryptographic digests, are emerging to help combat increasingly sophisticated attempts to hijack entire databases. 

Like many technologies that first emerged in the consumer world (think Second Life as a precursor to Digital Twins in the industrial IoT world), the true value of Blockchain may well be unlocked in the enterprise.

In the physical world, we need to be able to trust the people we do business with, at least to some extent. In the virtual world, processes need to be able to trust data in order to run efficiently. And in a world where the interdependence of virtual and physical actors is growing, and the pace of those interactions is increasing precipitously, enterprise Blockchain could become the universally accepted data passport in the very near future.

In other words, it might be time for the likes of you and me to accept the reality of Blockchain and start making a plan. And now that I’ve got my feet wet, I’d be happy to help.

About the Author

Maria Colgan is a distinguished product manager on the database team at Oracle, which she has been a part of since 1996. She is what some people would call a database nerd and has spent her entire career deeply involved with enhancing the performance of databases and applications. Her personal mission is to help companies attain the flexibility and resilience they need (especially in today’s ever-changing world) by assisting them in making better use of this incredible technology. She finds great satisfaction in listening to and incorporating their feedback into future product releases. Maria is the primary author of the SQLMaria blog https://sqlmaria.com and a contributing author to the Oracle Optimizer blog http://blogs.oracle.com/optimizer.

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