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Despite the Success of Blockchain POCs, Deploying Pilots Won’t be Easy (Part One)

At a conference in Houston, TX, last month, R3’s Tim Grant presented his version of a “blockchain adoption timeline.” It seemed to reflect a broader industry view that while 2014 was “The Year of Enlightenment” and 2015 “The Year of the Hype,” 2017 will be the year that blockchain projects move from proofs-of-concept (POCs) to the pilot stage.

That being the case, early adopters will right now be dealing with a number of deployment challenges that are probably quite new to those coming from the emerging blockchain technology world but that seasoned IT veterans are well versed in handling. Let me explain…

Preparing for Production

According to Grant, 2018 is slated as “The Year of Production.” In reality for most adopters, while pilots will likely be limited in scope, they will generally need to be engineered to meet enterprise IT requirements beyond what has been required for POCs. For this reason, I generally refer to pilots as “production pilots.”

For POCs — and many have been run over the past 18 months that have shown enough promise to move forward to pilot phase — the goals have usually been focused on determining whether blockchain technology can have a positive impact on a particular application challenge. For the most part, POCs have not addressed the devil in the details of application scalability and security, conformance with corporate IT edicts or systems and data integration.

In many cases, POCs have been run on public cloud environments, such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, which have allowed for fast and easy deployment of prototype code, but which do not tick all of the boxes for operations professionals responsible for running live, sometimes mission-critical, systems.

That’s not to say that public clouds cannot run production systems. They clearly can, and do, already supporting services for consumers like Netflix, businesses using Hootsuite and financial data providers like Xignite. But it takes effort and money to architect public clouds like AWS and Azure to be fault tolerant, secure and high performance — and many operations departments prefer to stick with in-house data center environments that they understand and can control.

Enter IBM

For its part, IBM is working to convince corporations that its blockchain is a cloud-hosted offering that operations can be comfortable with. Running on what IBM calls its “high security business network,” its service features secure service containers that run each customer’s blockchain code and other components in a secure environment, hardware security modules to keep encryption keys safe and LinuxONE mainframes that include hardware accelerators for cryptographic processing.

Still, if a customer wants IBM Blockchain but is not convinced that its cloud service is secure enough, IBM will deliver it for in-house deployment.

Similarly to several other blockchain platform providers, IBM is leveraging Docker technology to ease deployment woes for those looking to install code within their own data centers.

Docker is an open source container technology that collects together all of the software components needed to run an application — the business code itself, libraries, configuration files, etc. — so that it can be deployed readily on different operating environments (such as different Linux distributions) without changes.

Companies have readily adopted Docker and similar container technologies because they are more efficient than traditional virtualization technology that is used to optimize the use of hardware platforms in data centers. But as containers proliferate within a data center, tools are required to manage them. Popular tools include Docker Swarm and Kubernetes.

Moving Blockchain Apps

Now, getting back to blockchains.

BlockApps, a spinout of Ethereum specialist ConsenSys, is one vendor that’s working to make it easier to develop and deploy blockchain applications via its STRATO platform, which hides the complexities of Ethereum (and one day Enterprise Ethereum offerings) from developers.

BlockApps has partnered with Red Hat, and its OpenShift platform (a packaged version of Kubernetes) to ease the transition of blockchain applications from public cloud services (as a Microsoft partner it supports Azure) on which a POC might run to an in-house data center for production pilot deployment. Adding to Red Hat’s appeal is its Linux distribution, which is considered enterprise grade by operations executives that are gatekeepers to corporate data centers.

The bottom line is that moving blockchain apps from POCs to pilots will require an understanding of a set of technologies and tools just to solve deployment issues. So-called “DevOps skills” — and the IT veterans that possess them — will be an important asset for blockchain vendors to acquire as their early customers move forward with pilot deployments.

That’s it for blockchain pilot deployment complexities. In part two, we’ll look at the challenges of data integration, which will be critical to transform “canned” POCs into working pilots.

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