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What is blockchain and how does it work?

Jonathan Hassell | April 15, 2016
Bitcoin exploded on to the world’s stage in 2012 as a currency backed by everyone and controlled by no one. But what exactly makes it work from a technology standpoint?

Blockchain technology backs up Bitcoin to this day, but there’s been a recent groundswell of interest from a variety of industries in making distributed ledger technology work.

A blockchain is the structure of data that represents a financial ledger entry, or a record of a transaction. Each transaction is digitally signed to ensure its authenticity and that no one tampers with it, so the ledger itself and the existing transactions within it are assumed to be of high integrity.

The real magic comes, however, from these digital ledger entries being distributed among a deployment or infrastructure. These additional nodes and layers in the infrastructure serve the purpose of providing a consensus about the state of a transaction at any given second; they all have copies of the existing authenticated ledger distributed amongst them.

When a new transaction or an edit to an existing transaction comes in, generally a majority of the nodes within a blockchain implementation must execute some algorithms and essentially evaluate and verify the history of the individual blockchain block that is proposed, and come to a consensus that the history and signature is valid, then the new transaction is accepted into the ledger and a new block is added to the chain of transactions. If a majority of nodes do not concede to the addition or modification of the ledger entry, then it is denied and not added to the chain. This distributed consensus model is what allows blockchain to run as a distributed ledger without the need for some central, unifying authority saying what transactions are valid and (perhaps more importantly) which ones are not.

In fact, blockchain can be configured to work in a number of ways that use different mechanisms to achieve consensus on transactions and, in particular, to define known participants in the chain and exclude everyone else. The largest example of blockchain in use, Bitcoin, employs an anonymous public ledger in which anyone can participate. For more private uses of blockchain among a smaller number of known actors, many organizations are deploying permissioned blockchains to control who participates in transaction activity.

Blockchain is attractive to a number of different constituencies for a variety of reasons, including the following:

  • The lack of a requirement for a central authority makes it an ideal ledger and settlement solution for joint ventures and affiliate relationships that are generally made on an equal or 50/50 footing without a provision for an arbitrator or manager. Indeed, having the computers verify transactions and settle them eliminates the need for clearinghouses and other settlement agents, providing disintermediation in a business arrangement and generally reducing costs while improving the speed at which transactions can be made, verified, settled, and recorded.
  • The digital signatures and verifications make it difficult to envision a scenario wherein a bad actor could cause fraud and introduce problems that are costly to remove and resolve. The cryptographic integrity of the whole pending transaction, as well as examination by multiple nodes of the blockchain architecture, protect against threats and malevolent use of the technology. (With that said, it is important to note that this security protection has largely been untested in the marketplace and, while strong on a theoretical basis, questions remain about how well the protections will hold up in the reality of the digital economy we live in today.)
  • The concept of blockchain works really well at tracking how assets move through a supply chain, through certain vendors and factories to transmission and transportation lines and into their final locations.

 

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