I have recently spoken in several workshops to general public and seen the increasing interest in the topic “blockchain” (I know the term is not accurately addressing what I am saying here, but by far this is the best term for general public audience). Their interests are mainly on the use cases and on “how it works” for those a bit technical. The most popular question I receive is “Where can I start to learn blockchain”.
That brings me back more two years ago when I was first being asked by my wife “can you tell me how Bitcoin works”. It is back to mid-2016 and I didn’t do my first (and only) Bitcoin purchase until a year after. Nevertheless, it is how I began my journey in this new area.
This article does not touch on any investment recommendation, but more on the technology aspect. No one takes the same routes in grasping new technologies. But here I give two suggestions that you can consider if you are interested to learn more.
Start with Bitcoin
Bitcoin by far is the live and public blockchain with the longest history, running for 10 years. Though it is first positioned as “electronic cash system”, which means for our daily use, nowadays news about Bitcoin is mainly on the investment side if not speculation. In particular when talking about other cryptocurrencies in the market Bitcoin becomes the “US Dollar” in the cryptocurrency world.
However, what fascinating me is the mechanism behind. Bitcoin comes with something new, a combination of topics like cryptography, peer-to-peer communication, permissionless participation, distributed consensus algorithm, the economic incentive through mining, proof-of-work, the data structure (where we first see blockchain as a chain of blocks), etc. Each topic already makes me busy in the very beginning of my blockchain journey.
Some of the implementation and the lack of other good features are being challenged, and we keep seeing new comers joining this area by bringing something better. Nevertheless, learning how Bitcoin works lays a good foundation to grasp the ideas these new comers are bringing, whether it is the appreciation of new capabilities, or possible judgement whether it makes sense or not.
Therefore with this knowledge we can set sail for some other players. To name some here: Ethereum, a blockchain platform also allowing us to write smart contract; ZCash, which gives us more privacy than Bitcoin; IOTA, a non-blockchain approach to address high transaction fee; NEM, another blockchain which makes application development easier with handy services; Hedera Hashgraph, where scalability and performance in achieving consensus is their top priority.
And we see new wave of applications built on top of these platforms. In general they are called Decentralized Application (DApp) though it can mean differently in various platforms. Many tokens are built on Ethereum using its smart contract capability, and applications are now linked to the use of tokens. Another important aspect of blockchain is the difficulty of data tampering and the robustness of network (no government and organization can shut the whole network down provided that economic incentive is still valid). Therefore we can use it as a proof of something, be it an existence of digital document, digital assets, identity, etc. We are expecting more to come.
Start with an Enterprise Blockchain Framework
Besides cryptocurrency, we also see another type of news about blockchain. They mainly focus on how blockchain is used in various vertical markets, say in Shipment, Trade Finance, Insurance, Health Care, etc. When we double click on the news, we find that most of them are not using those public live blockchains. Rather they prefer a private implementation. Here we come Enterprise Blockchain.
Again, the term “blockchain” is used rather loosely. Some players use Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) instead of blockchain to reflect the distributed deployment of a shared ledger, while blockchain, being a pattern “chain of blocks”, is just one type of data structure to keep the data. Nevertheless, allow me again to use blockchain this term for upcoming discussion.
If your purpose is to “use blockchain to streamline a business process across companies”, then enterprise blockchain is the right path you begin.
In enterprise blockchain you no longer see things like mining, power consumption, pseudonymity, record visible by everyone, etc. In most cases, applications built on top of enterprise blockchain requires identity, permissioned participation, transaction and data privacy, etc. All are governed by strict policy one defines such that everything is under control (when it is properly designed and implemented).
There are several enterprise blockchain frameworks in the market. They come with the necessary components for enterprise blockchain, and you can build the application on top of the framework. To start, I would recommend Hyperledger Fabric. It is by far the most popular in the market. Donated by IBM and now being developed under Linux Foundation, Hyperledger Fabric releases the first code of production grade in mid-2017, and we keep seeing good use cases and demo / proof-of-concept on it.
This does not exclude other players. R3 Corda takes a different approach and is also seen in many finance use cases. JP Morgan’s Quorum brings Ethereum from public to enterprise use by adding data and transaction privacy. Hyperledger Sawtooth, another project under Linux Foundation, also gets production grade early this year and also a good framework to build your own application.
If I were you …
Unless you have already got a clear mission to build an application on enterprise blockchain, I would recommend you start with the public blockchain, say with Bitcoin and then Ethereum, and then get some experience on one enterprise blockchain framework.
Most concepts you learn in public blockchain platforms are still applicable in enterprise blockchain. For example, you will see almost the same blockchain concept in both Bitcoin and Hyperledger Fabric, and Bitcoin and R3 Corda have very similar ways to record and process transactions. Not to mention that smart contract capability in Ethereum is identical to Quorum. Yes, both of them are Ethereum.
On one side, we appreciate the mechanism handling thousands of nodes in public blockchains, which is always not required in enterprise blockchain due to a private deployment. On the other side, you will know the missing parts of public blockchains, which are much needed in real business, and see how enterprise blockchain framework is delivering them.
If you only work on enterprise blockchain framework, you may find it yet another enterprise software, with more complicated business logic and setup across companies. You will miss some interesting aspects of a public blockchain.
Resource, and Keep Practicing
All blockchain frameworks come with good (at least improving) material. Go to the official documentation on the one you start with.
Besides, many evangelists have composed and developed a lot of good material on those popular blockchain platforms, like Bitcoin, Ethereum and Hyperledger Fabric. They are usually in videos and articles, and most of them are free of charge. Simply select a topic you wish to learn and google it.
If you wish to make it more systematic, there are many paid online classes. Following structured online class reduces time of material searching. This can serve as a good foundation when you later explore any topics further.
Even though not all of you are with technical background or will pursue career in application development, if possible, I highly recommend you do some hands-on. Most blockchain frameworks come with good tutorials. There are also many good hands-on guide online. Gaining practical experience and knowing how it works help you build more solid understanding and make better decision when you need to select what platform you are building your application.
Thanks for reading. And have a nice journey in Blockchain!