Blockchain: Why Coders Are The New Cowboys

Maggie Nelson

We have all been asked, “If you could go back in time and live in a particular era or decade, which would you choose?” If you’re like me, you carefully weigh the pros and cons: The roaring 1920s would offer great music, but also prohibition. In the Jurassic period, you could camp with dinosaurs, but that also means THERE WOULD BE DINOSAURS! After careful thought, I tend to favor the Wild, Wild West. Riding horses, shooting guns. and exploring the undiscovered… this sounds like my kind of adventure.

Nevertheless, until Santa brings me a DeLorean for Christmas, I will not be time-traveling anytime in the near future. Presently, I feel like we are at a point in time that resembles the Wild, Wild West when it comes to blockchain. Some articles link blockchain to the Internet in the 1990s, but I prefer to live in a more sensationalized state of mind, where coders are cowboys and the new gold is cryptocurrency.

Blockchain is not just Bitcoin or cryptocurrencies; it is so much more. The power of blockchain’s distributed ledger technology has applications across every kind of digital record and transaction. The potential use cases are limitless, which translates into a great new frontier (cue the Davy Crockett theme song).

Blockchain uniquely ties together the transformation of a digital ecosystem, and as such, the opportunity that lies within industry innovation. As Pat Bakey, president of SAP Industries, put it, “Blockchain’s innate versatility means that it truly has the ability to reshape nearly any industry if put to use correctly.”

The technology has significant potential, just like what the gold rush offered prospectors: the opportunity of unimaginable fortunes. Similarly, while not all prospectors found fortune, blockchain is not a good fit for every process or transaction. Converting this promising technology into a legitimate business reality will come from industry expertise and collaboration.

Within the aerospace and defense (A&D) industry, conversations vary from, “What is blockchain?” to full blown co-innovation initiatives. Use cases our team is exploring include:

  • Building trust and transparency in aircraft manufacturing and operations by leveraging credential verification tools to maintain secure certifications for parts, products, personnel, and organizations.
  • Increasing security and trust in a complex, multi-tier supply chain with end-to-end data integrity and provenance.
  • Simplifying contract management with collaborative “smart” contracts for a scalable system of record.

By exploring the use cases specific to the A&D industry ecosystem, or by joining the SAP Blockchain Co-Innovation Program, A&D companies have the opportunity to slip on our cowboy boots, mount our horses, and begin exploring the new frontier.

So the only question that remains is: When the dust settles, where will you be? On the Oregon Trail without an ox or a passenger on the Transcontinental Railroad?

See how you can turn insight into action, make better decisions, and transform your business.

This story also appeared on the SAP Community. Published with permission of the author.

Comments

Maggie Nelson

About Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is the Solution Manager of the Aerospace & Defense Business Unit at SAP.

What Is Blockchain?

Claudio Brecht

Blockchain has long been resonating beyond the walls of the software industry. Every day, messages circulate about the development of the Bitcoin price index, while startups are competing to create the next earth-shattering business model based on this technology.

Yet what do we really understand about it?

At the peak of the 2008 financial crisis, an individual or a group of individuals acting under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto sent a paper entitled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” to a mailing list. It contained a practical solution to a problem that had left virtual currency theorists scratching their heads: the Byzantine General’s Problem.

Creating consensus among decentralized players

The Byzantine General’s Problem originates in an historical legend at the time of Constantinople’s fall to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The fortified city could only be successfully overrun with help of carefully planned troop movements coming from various directions. To achieve this, the commanding Ottoman generals had to resort to communicating through messengers. However, the decision about the moment of attack was severely hampered by one key detail: As some of the generals wanted discredit their colleagues to the sultan, they purposefully provided false information to instigate a premature attack. From that point on, none of the generals could be sure if the incoming messages were authentic or not.

The crux of the problem was the issue of consensus, deriving from the fact that the individual decision-makers could not trust one another.

Money and the role of the intermediary

The same situation applies to digital transactions of value. How can we reach consensus that a virtual dollar will not be paid out twice? To date, the answer could not have been simpler: by involving an intermediary third party to oversee all transactions; in other words, a bank.

This isn’t always smooth sailing. International payments in the form of SWIFT transfers often take several days to process due to the various parties involved. This increases the transaction costs and makes small one-off payments inconvenient. The option of being able to cancel a transaction also has its pitfalls; to be able to minimize fraud, providers of irreversible services are required to collect more information about their customers than is usually necessary.

Yet for physical value transactions the problem has been largely resolved. Take the following example: If Alice wants to pay Bob a certain sum of money, it is sufficient for her to hand him a counterfeit-proof coin that represents the respective value. It is impossible for Alice to make two separate payments simultaneously using the same coin.

There have been many attempts to convert the principle of physical currency into the digital world, yet with varying degrees of success. Bitcoin was the first to largely meet these demands.

Cryptographic signatures and digital value

To ensure that digital coins can only be spent by their lawful owners, Bitcoin uses public-key cryptography. This involves a private key made up of randomly-generated numbers, which, in turn also derives a public key. Conversely, public keys cannot be used to derive the corresponding private key. A digital signature is generated from the private key and a set of data. The public key enables users to determine that the signature derives from the corresponding private key, without needing to know it.

Bitcoin also uses the cryptographic hash function, which converts large strings of data into fixed-length data values, otherwise known as a hash. A good hash function is characterized by a high level of security and can assign various input quantities using as few of the same hashes as possible.

Compared to an encryption, this process cannot be reversed. When applied to the same input quantity, the hash function always produces the same hash yet it cannot be attributed to the original input quantity. Every change to the input quantity generates a completely different hash. For this reason, hashes are also known as digital fingerprints.

A coin in the Bitcoin system is ultimately a combination of digital signatures. The coin is passed on when the owner (Alice) digitally signs a hash from the previous transaction and the receiver’s (Bob) public key. For Bob to be sure that Alice has not already used her coin in another transaction, all transactions are publicly available.

Mathematical race to reach consensus

Bitcoin achieves this through a peer-to-peer network. A network node compiles various transactions together in a block, generates a hash from them, and releases it with a time stamp. Each block contains the hash from the previous block, thereby forming a chain: the blockchain.

This brings us back to the “Byzantine General’s Problem:” all nodes must agree on which transaction has taken place first and whether another block should be added to the chain. Bitcoin here uses the so called proof of work method. To add an additional block to the chain, the respective computer nodes are required to solve a complex mathematical puzzle. The node that first finds the solution then shares it with all the other nodes. Once the solution has been verified by them, every node adds the block to their copy of the chain. The process then starts all over again.

To comply with the changing total computing power in the network, the difficulty of the puzzle is constantly adapted, so that new blocks are added to the chain approximately every 10 minutes. If two blocks are found simultaneously, the next block found determines which sub-chain will be kept. The longest chain wins.

Since the puzzle must be re-solved for every change to the block, which is also the case for all subsequent blocks, the chain becomes more secure the longer it becomes. To change it, an attacker would have to re-solve the mathematical puzzle for all blocks before being able to add a new block to the chain. The element of trust, which currently exists in the form of a bank, is thereby contained within blockchain’s mathematical logic.

The Internet of value

Blockchain functions as a distributed public journal that records irreversible transactions. Users can quickly and cost-effectively verify and audit their transactions without intermediaries.

Use cases of public blockchain have the potential to completely transform existing markets.

Blockchain technology use cases are by no means restricted to Bitcoin. Blockchain is far more a message about the transmission of value — the “Internet of Value.” The database serves as the ultimate determination of ownership rights. All kinds of assets that can be transformed into digital twins can be included in blockchain: diamonds, buildings, good deliveries – the possibilities are endless.

Whether this innovation is disruptive or incremental depends on the areas of operation. Reaching consensus within or between companies means evolutionary change, while use cases of public blockchains have the potential to completely transform existing markets.

One blockchain use case is Everledger, a startup that produces digital twins for diamonds. These digital twins are calculated from 40 data points and are stored on blockchain, enabling the stone’s ownership to be traced from when it first mined to when it becomes a piece of jewelry. Over 1 million jewels have already been digitally secured — a real success story.

Learn more about how SAP is bringing blockchain to the enterprise.

Comments

Claudio Brecht

About Claudio Brecht

Claudio Brecht is a Communications Specialist at SAP.

Blockchain: Hit Or Miss For Supply Chain?

Richard Howells

Earlier this month I participated in an interesting show on the topic of “Blockchain Technology: A Hit or A Miss for Supply Chain Networks?” with Irfan Khan, CEO and president of Bristlecone.

The discussion was based on blockchain’s ability to drive end-to-end value, eliminate inefficiencies, and improve customer experience. Blockchain – a decentralized, distributed ledger payment system using cryptocurrency – is powering digital transformation for companies around the world.

“It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

I set the stage by using this quote that has been attributed to several people, from Nostradamus to Mark Twain (who is attributed almost every quote known to man). It works perfectly for blockchain, which, according to Gartner’s latest Hype Cycle for Supply Chain Execution (July 2017), was rated “transformational” but with a market penetration of “less than 1 percent.” The key is to predict and identify use cases to improve transparency, traceability, and performance and that can benefit from secured transactions.

Where can blockchain benefit supply chain processes?

During our discussions, a few areas of opportunity emerged.

Logistics processes

It has been estimated that 90 percent of global trade is carried out by ocean shipping industry, and the cost of trade-related documents and administration is estimated to represent up to 20 percent of the actual transportation cost. And this process relies on a web of disparate systems across freight forwarders, customer’s brokers, port authorities, ocean carriers, and trucking companies. Imagine if we could digitize the process to collaborate across companies and authorities, reduce the paperwork, streamline cross boarder movements, and reduce fraud and errors. Blockchain has the potential to help enable us to manage and track a “digital twin” of shipping containers across the world.

Track and trace and genealogy processes

In many industries, we are continually pushing for improved traceability by both regulatory bodies, and consumers. For example, in the food and beverage industries, we are seeing an increased demand for local and organic products with a clear proof of origin and sustainability.

Let’s look at the simple coffee bean as an example. This starts literally, at the source, in remote farms in Africa where 70-80 percent of the world’s coffee beans are grown. Imagine if we could have mobile machines that could capture the grade, color, size, and quality the coffee carries at source, and by leveraging AI and machine learning, determine a fair-trade price for the specific lot. This could be transmitted to the buyers who could agree a purchase with the farmer and perform an electronic transfer of funds immediately. Imagine also that the quality information and price paid is tracked throughout the harvesting, logistics, roasting and consumption of those beans all over the world. A consumer could have an app that would tell them where the coffee came from, the journey from farm to cup, and even if the farmer was compensated fairly.

This example is not too far-fetched. Check out what a company called Bext360 is doing as a proof of concept today.

Asset lifecycle management

Many industries have capital-intensive, business-critical assets (think airplanes, mining equipment, trucks, tractors) that are expected to be in use for 10 or even 30 years. Over its lifespan, each asset will go through numerous upgrades, repairs, and refurbishments and may also go through numerous owners. This ensures that all the parts used to perform these activities are of high quality, from reliable, legitimate sources and are critical for end user or passenger safety and security. We can now put IoT-enabled sensors on every part within an asset and track (Big) Data at a level never imagined a few short years ago. Ensuring the traceability and security of this data is critical to ensure the history and provenance of parts, the or the maintenance and repair history of a capital-intensive piece of equipment.

Blockchain, along with other technologies such as IoT, predictive analytics, and machine learning has the potential to manage assets from the design of the product, through manufacturing and throughout its active life and keep a secure, digital twin that can be tracked and analyzed for a complete history of that asset.

Blockchain is a key part of a digital supply chain

Blockchain, although relatively early in its existence, has the potential to help digitize our supply chains. However, as we discussed, it is not a solution by itself. We see several technologies coming together to enable the digital supply chain. The Internet of Things enables smarter and connected products and assets that are generating amazing amounts of data from all areas of the supply chain. This “Big Data” is the catalyst for predictive analytics, and machine learning adds intelligence to this data and drives automation and artificial intelligence through physical devices. Blockchain’s role is to automate transactions, ensure traceability, and address cybersecurity.

For more on blockchain, see Blockchain: Much Ado About Nothing? How Very Wrong!

Article published by Richard Howells. It originally appeared on Huffington Post and has been republished with permission.

Comments

Richard Howells

About Richard Howells

Richard Howells is a Vice President at SAP responsible for the positioning, messaging, AR , PR and go-to market activities for the SAP Supply Chain solutions.

The Future Will Be Co-Created

Dan Wellers and Timo Elliott

 

Just 3% of companies have completed enterprise digital transformation projects.
92% of those companies have significantly improved or transformed customer engagement.
81% of business executives say platforms will reshape industries into interconnected ecosystems.
More than half of large enterprises (80% of the Global 500) will join industry platforms by 2018.

Link to Sources


Redefining Customer Experience

Many business leaders think of the customer journey or experience as the interaction an individual or business has with their firm.

But the business value of the future will exist in the much broader, end-to-end experiences of a customer—the experience of travel, for example, or healthcare management or mobility. Individual companies alone, even with their existing supplier networks, lack the capacity to transform these comprehensive experiences.


A Network Effect

Rather than go it alone, companies will develop deep collaborative relationships across industries—even with their customers—to create powerful ecosystems that multiply the breadth and depth of the products, services, and experiences they can deliver. Digital native companies like Baidu and Uber have embraced ecosystem thinking from their early days. But forward-looking legacy companies are beginning to take the approach.

Solutions could include:

  • Packaging provider Weig has integrated partners into production with customers co-inventing custom materials.
  • China’s Ping An insurance company is aggressively expanding beyond its sector with a digital platform to help customers manage their healthcare experience.
  • British roadside assistance provider RAC is delivering a predictive breakdown service for drivers by acquiring and partnering with high-tech companies.

What Color Is Your Ecosystem?

Abandoning long-held notions of business value creation in favor of an ecosystem approach requires new tactics and strategies. Companies can:

1.  Dispassionately map the end-to-end customer experience, including those pieces outside company control.

2.  Employ future planning tactics, such as scenario planning, to examine how that experience might evolve.

3.  Identify organizations in that experience ecosystem with whom you might co-innovate.

4.  Embrace technologies that foster secure collaboration and joint innovation around delivery of experiences, such as cloud computing, APIs, and micro-services.

5.  Hire, train for, and reward creativity, innovation, and customer-centricity.


Evolve or Be Commoditized

Some companies will remain in their traditional industry boxes, churning out products and services in isolation. But they will be commodity players reaping commensurate returns. Companies that want to remain competitive will seek out their new ecosystem or get left out in the cold.


Download the executive brief The Future Will be Co-Created.


Read the full article The Future Belongs to Industry-Busting Ecosystems.

Turn insight into action, make better decisions, and transform your business.  Learn how.

Comments

Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

About Timo Elliott

Timo Elliott is an Innovation Evangelist for SAP and a passionate advocate of innovation, digital business, analytics, and artificial intelligence. He was the eighth employee of BusinessObjects and for the last 25 years he has worked closely with SAP customers around the world on new technology directions and their impact on real-world organizations. His articles have appeared in articles such as Harvard Business Review, Forbes, ZDNet, The Guardian, and Digitalist Magazine. He has worked in the UK, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Silicon Valley, and currently lives in Paris, France. He has a degree in Econometrics and a patent in mobile analytics. 

Tags:

Blockchain: Much Ado About Nothing? How Very Wrong!

Juergen Roehricht

Let me start with a quote from McKinsey, that in my view hits the nail right on the head:

“No matter what the context, there’s a strong possibility that blockchain will affect your business. The very big question is when.”

Now, in the industries that I cover in my role as general manager and innovation lead for travel and transportation/cargo, engineering, construction and operations, professional services, and media, I engage with many different digital leaders on a regular basis. We are having visionary conversations about the impact of digital technologies and digital transformation on business models and business processes and the way companies address them. Many topics are at different stages of the hype cycle, but the one that definitely stands out is blockchain as a new enabling technology in the enterprise space.

Just a few weeks ago, a customer said to me: “My board is all about blockchain, but I don’t get what the excitement is about – isn’t this just about Bitcoin and a cryptocurrency?”

I can totally understand his confusion. I’ve been talking to many blockchain experts who know that it will have a big impact on many industries and the related business communities. But even they are uncertain about the where, how, and when, and about the strategy on how to deal with it. The reason is that we often look at it from a technology point of view. This is a common mistake, as the starting point should be the business problem and the business issue or process that you want to solve or create.

In my many interactions with Torsten Zube, vice president and blockchain lead at the SAP Innovation Center Network (ICN) in Potsdam, Germany, he has made it very clear that it’s mandatory to “start by identifying the real business problem and then … figure out how blockchain can add value.” This is the right approach.

What we really need to do is provide guidance for our customers to enable them to bring this into the context of their business in order to understand and define valuable use cases for blockchain. We need to use design thinking or other creative strategies to identify the relevant fields for a particular company. We must work with our customers and review their processes and business models to determine which key blockchain aspects, such as provenance and trust, are crucial elements in their industry. This way, we can identify use cases in which blockchain will benefit their business and make their company more successful.

My highly regarded colleague Ulrich Scholl, who is responsible for externalizing the latest industry innovations, especially blockchain, in our SAP Industries organization, recently said: “These kinds of use cases are often not evident, as blockchain capabilities sometimes provide minor but crucial elements when used in combination with other enabling technologies such as IoT and machine learning.” In one recent and very interesting customer case from the autonomous province of South Tyrol, Italy, blockchain was one of various cloud platform services required to make this scenario happen.

How to identify “blockchainable” processes and business topics (value drivers)

To understand the true value and impact of blockchain, we need to keep in mind that a verified transaction can involve any kind of digital asset such as cryptocurrency, contracts, and records (for instance, assets can be tangible equipment or digital media). While blockchain can be used for many different scenarios, some don’t need blockchain technology because they could be handled by a simple ledger, managed and owned by the company, or have such a large volume of data that a distributed ledger cannot support it. Blockchain would not the right solution for these scenarios.

Here are some common factors that can help identify potential blockchain use cases:

  • Multiparty collaboration: Are many different parties, and not just one, involved in the process or scenario, but one party dominates everything? For example, a company with many parties in the ecosystem that are all connected to it but not in a network or more decentralized structure.
  • Process optimization: Will blockchain massively improve a process that today is performed manually, involves multiple parties, needs to be digitized, and is very cumbersome to manage or be part of?
  • Transparency and auditability: Is it important to offer each party transparency (e.g., on the origin, delivery, geolocation, and hand-overs) and auditable steps? (e.g., How can I be sure that the wine in my bottle really is from Bordeaux?)
  • Risk and fraud minimization: Does it help (or is there a need) to minimize risk and fraud for each party, or at least for most of them in the chain? (e.g., A company might want to know if its goods have suffered any shocks in transit or whether the predefined route was not followed.)

Connecting blockchain with the Internet of Things

This is where blockchain’s value can be increased and automated. Just think about a blockchain that is not just maintained or simply added by a human, but automatically acquires different signals from sensors, such as geolocation, temperature, shock, usage hours, alerts, etc. One that knows when a payment or any kind of money transfer has been made, a delivery has been received or arrived at its destination, or a digital asset has been downloaded from the Internet. The relevant automated actions or signals are then recorded in the distributed ledger/blockchain.

Of course, given the massive amount of data that is created by those sensors, automated signals, and data streams, it is imperative that only the very few pieces of data coming from a signal that are relevant for a specific business process or transaction be stored in a blockchain. By recording non-relevant data in a blockchain, we would soon hit data size and performance issues.

Ideas to ignite thinking in specific industries

  • The digital, “blockchained” physical asset (asset lifecycle management): No matter whether you build, use, or maintain an asset, such as a machine, a piece of equipment, a turbine, or a whole aircraft, a blockchain transaction (genesis block) can be created when the asset is created. The blockchain will contain all the contracts and information for the asset as a whole and its parts. In this scenario, an entry is made in the blockchain every time an asset is: sold; maintained by the producer or owner’s maintenance team; audited by a third-party auditor; has malfunctioning parts; sends or receives information from sensors; meets specific thresholds; has spare parts built in; requires a change to the purpose or the capability of the assets due to age or usage duration; receives (or doesn’t receive) payments; etc.
  • The delivery chain, bill of lading: In today’s world, shipping freight from A to B involves lots of manual steps. For example, a carrier receives a booking from a shipper or forwarder, confirms it, and, before the document cut-off time, receives the shipping instructions describing the content and how the master bill of lading should be created. The carrier creates the original bill of lading and hands it over to the ordering party (the current owner of the cargo). Today, that original paper-based bill of lading is required for the freight (the container) to be picked up at the destination (the port of discharge). Imagine if we could do this as a blockchain transaction and by forwarding a PDF by email. There would be one transaction at the beginning, when the shipping carrier creates the bill of lading. Then there would be look-ups, e.g., by the import and release processing clerk of the shipper at the port of discharge and the new owner of the cargo at the destination. Then another transaction could document that the container had been handed over.

The future

I personally believe in the massive transformative power of blockchain, even though we are just at the very beginning. This transformation will be achieved by looking at larger networks with many participants that all have a nearly equal part in a process. Today, many blockchain ideas still have a more centralistic approach, in which one company has a more prominent role than the (many) others and often is “managing” this blockchain/distributed ledger-supported process/approach.

But think about the delivery scenario today, where goods are shipped from one door or company to another door or company, across many parties in the delivery chain: from the shipper/producer via the third-party logistics service provider and/or freight forwarder; to the companies doing the actual transport, like vessels, trucks, aircraft, trains, cars, ferries, and so on; to the final destination/receiver. And all of this happens across many countries, many borders, many handovers, customs, etc., and involves a lot of paperwork, across all constituents.

“Blockchaining” this will be truly transformational. But it will need all constituents in the process or network to participate, even if they have different interests, and to agree on basic principles and an approach.

As Torsten Zube put it, I am not a “blockchain extremist” nor a denier that believes this is just a hype, but a realist open to embracing a new technology in order to change our processes for our collective benefit.

Turn insight into action, make better decisions, and transform your business. Learn how.

Comments

Juergen Roehricht

About Juergen Roehricht

Juergen Roehricht is General Manager of Services Industries and Innovation Lead of the Middle and Eastern Europe region for SAP. The industries he covers include travel and transportation; professional services; media; and engineering, construction and operations. Besides managing the business in those segments, Juergen is focused on supporting innovation and digital transformation strategies of SAP customers. With more than 20 years of experience in IT, he stays up to date on the leading edge of innovation, pioneering and bringing new technologies to market and providing thought leadership. He has published several articles and books, including Collaborative Business and The Multi-Channel Company.