Blockchains have become a topic of digital interest since the emergence of real-time ridesharing and crowdfunding began using “cryptocurrency” nearly a decade ago. Blockchains (“blocks” refers to a growing list of records) ease secure, online transactions through a decentralized and distributed digital ledger that records transactions across many computers. The blockchain ensures that the record can’t be altered after-the-fact without the adjustment of all subsequent blocks and the complicity of the network.
Microsoft’s Azure blockchain service makes the infrastructure portion easier by standing up the blockchain environment including the required compute, network, storage services from the Azure portal in a matter of minutes. From an application perspective, Azure supplies the ease of deployment and configuration of blockchain networks by leveraging solution templates. From a design perspective, Azure provides shared, distributed, cryptographically immutable ledgers so that organizations can collaborate and build applications on top of such a platform.
These features were prominently discussed at the recent Microsoft Ignite 2017 Conference in Orlando, and I took note of a number of these as I attended various sessions and discussions. In this article, we will look at the main highlights and advantages of using the Microsft (MS) Azure platform with respect to blockchains gathered through a series of sessions focused on Enterprises, Use Cases, Integration, Standards, Enabling Frameworks, and Tools that Azure services use to support blockchains. More information can be found in the Reference section below.
A growing number of enterprises are experimenting with blockchain technology as a secure and transparent way to digitally track the ownership of assets across trust boundaries, to achieve cross-organizational collaboration and to model their business needs. They will require a proven platform that can meet performance, scalability, availability, security and governance features. An enterprise’s approach must adhere to separation of concern capabilities such as modular logic, Cross, and Multichain, while working with external systems, multiple trust models, flexible designs, and different scales and versions. The Azure platform seems ready to meet these enterprise features and requirements for blockchain development and management in the following areas.
Another important differentiator on the infrastructure dimension is that the Azure stack tallows enterprises planning to leverage their on-premises data centers or intending to host Blockchain applications in their private or hybrid networks to have a uniform experience as Azure cloud.
Identification of the right use cases to implement Blockchain is the most important factor, and Microsoft Ignite speakers emphasized and demonstrated this aspect relating to their client case studies.
Assets can be categorized as Physical, Contract, Digital representations or Monetary. Typical use case patterns include the visibility and transfer of an Asset that involves Cross Division or Cross Organization workflows and High-assurance audits.
Verticals such as the financial sector, retail & manufacturing, healthcare and government – where there are B2B transactions – demonstrate the need for increased transparency and tracking at different phases of the workflow process. Involvement of multiple parties means they must have visibility to accurate information at any time, forming a good basis to employ blockchain. The use of blockchain applications for these requirements will eliminate third party verifications, reduce fraud and improve execution and settlement times.
Some interesting and impressive use case implementations discussed:
There is no one-size-fits-all for ledgers, so Azure provides an easy way to standup any type of blockchain ledger standard (for example, Corda, Syscoin, Ethereum, Chain, Hyperledger, and Fabric) with automated deployments in single-node or multi-node ledgers.
COCO is effectively a side chain that syncs commit state or hash back to main chain over time, with a wrapper that can take it from a handful to thousands of transactions. The open source version will be ready by early next year.
Project Lexington is a series of customizable templates used by Microsoft engineering to conduct a POC fast, fail fast, for conducting POC on the blockchain projects.
Process Reengineering for blockchain includes modeling the current state to future state with participants, roles, workflows, data and systems, capture the benefits and build on the change.
The four pillars of blockchain are viewed as: Cryptographically authentic time-tested public/private signature protecting transactions, Shared Participation of as many organizations/partners/competitors empowering the BC, Distributed-Many replicas of blockchain databases, and Ledger-Database Read/Write-once immutable transactions.
The following workflow describes a reference blockchain application architecture view with different layers along with the different services that can come together in a solution:
Source of events: SFTP, MQ, Modern applications(Web/mobile/IoT)
Identity and Key management: Azure AD, Azure Key Vault
Collection: Azure cloud gateways
Investor (Broker): Azure Event Hubs
Long term storage:
Presentation Layer: Modern Applications, Power BI, Cortana Analytics, Device interactions, Interfaces with existing Line of business through standard protocols.
Presentation & Solution app layer:
Middleware/Business logic layer:
Managed ledger layers:
It’s easy to get started on using Azure blockchain service from the Azure management portal by creating a private blockchain consortium network on a single virtual machine. Once there, you can build some smart contracts, author and deploy to the chain using framework deployment on the VM, or demonstrate the use case of securing transactions that exist on the blockchain. Refer to the Lab “Building a permissioned blockchain application” specified in the Reference section to try this solution.
The Azure platform provides a complete infrastructure environment for Ledgers, Network and Trustless-Permission less model environments including hundreds of solution templates that can be launched through the Azure marketplace. Blockchain distributed ledgers and applications can be stood up on an evolved platform like Azure with its built in blockchain service, IaaS, PaaS, Azure middleware, and SaaS/Third party integration through Cryptlets, public cloud, hybrid and support for evolving blockchain standards. This makes Azure Blockchain a reasonable choice for POC or evaluation in the applicable projects.