Need to Know: The Blockchain Platform

"Too early for standards"
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Editor’s Note: Welcome to NewBay’s inaugural edition of Need to Know, where we explain complex topics and demonstrate how they apply to each industry we serve. Need to Know stories appear on our websites and in our magazines. Keep coming back for future topics, to include 5G, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.

You will hear the blockchain described as a distributed ledger. That characterization conjurs Bitcoin and money/gambling. But for our purposes, the blockchain’s role in crypto-currency is just a distraction. (I did make $75 on Bitcoin trading but the hourly wage wasn’t worth it). Also forget about “mining”.

Just think about the blockchain as another distributed platform. A little like distributed DSP or distributed digital asset management.

This excerpt illustration from a Bitcoin stack suggests a broad analogy with distributed DSP.

This excerpt illustration from a Bitcoin stack suggests a broad analogy with distributed DSP.

Remember when audio was only point-to-point? When it was a physical wave traveling over a wire to a single destination? Remember when only one person at a time could work on a digital file? The video editor would work on the file and they’d save it with a version number (or not) and pass it on to the sound editor? Remember when early networks were master/slave, a centralized one-to-many hub? If you don’t remember, just trust me.

We got over that. Now we have digital routers, distributed DSP, distributed bi-directional networks, file sharing in realtime, automated access control, permissions, presets, etc. So when you think about the blockchain in our industry remember how far we’ve come.

Do we need a next-gen network?

You can picture the blockchain as a next gen network. At the moment, most non-currency blockchain networks are visualized as closed and permissioned, not unlike current intranets. Their claim to fame is they are completely transparent--everything that happens on them is permanently in the record (as with all blockchain networks). And they are completely encrypted. But they are not anonymous or infinite the way crypto-currency networks are.

See our full Need to Know for more facts about blockchain.

Of course we already have ways to share and manage files, data and signal over distributed networks. The blockchain can offer some new ways to collaborate over shared files. It can in theory increase access and transparency for sharing drawings and contracts, updating or monitoring shared data or accessing current data from partners. Your need-to-know network could in theory become more accurate and connected. We will in theory be able to use—or offer—blockchain as a service (BaaS), and big companies are already trying that including Microsoft, Deloitte, and IBM. But at what cost to develop, implement and use? And why and when would that matter to AV?

Asset security is a driver

This example shows how familiar elements of digital rights management and payment could play out on a blockchain platform. Currently the transaction limit is about 7 per second, so obviously it's not practical for any kind of realtime distribution of anything; current models are for applications that are not time-based.

This example shows how familiar elements of digital rights management and payment could play out on a blockchain platform. Currently the transaction limit is about 7 per second, so obviously it's not practical for any kind of realtime distribution of anything; current models are for applications that are not time-based.

While the blockchain paradigm may improve something we already do, it is way too expensive and difficult to implement just to make things…different. The primary carrot is in theory security, and certainly what we do now is not secure, really quite dramatically not secure. I remember touring the content vaults of one of the world’s most famous content creators with one of the shrewdest guys I know; for all his smarts and unlimited money it was only….almost secure. His team was maintaining and evolving the system to outrun the bandits.

Realtime security is a holy grail

Companies with highly valuable digital assets have the most to gain in the nearer term and have high hopes and incentive for the blockchain. For everyone else, the business case is not there and even the most optimistic blockchain cheerleaders don’t say that it is.

Nevertheless, you will see the blockchain positioned as a platform for creating more secure realtime enterprise communications networks, and it does have that potential, though still way down the road. Certainly there is a need. Security is already a big concern for customers and their IT departments, and there are many disagreements about what is secure (i.e to WAP or not to WAP?). We are at the really nascent baby-steps stage of security so something big will have to change.

Beyond access control

Right now security is focused on controlling access; the blockchain platform suggests that security can also come from total transparency (every action is permanently and immutably recorded) and decentralized content (so it's never in one piece in one place).

Let’s consider an example. Take a digital whiteboard in a videoconference. You write on the digital whiteboard, a remote colleague or client writes on it, but nobody has access to the whiteboard itself. You each see an accurate representation of the digital whiteboard, but it’s filled in by the blockchain; your encrypted work goes to the blockchain where it is held in pieces and redistributed back to the whiteboard; likewise your colleague’s scribbles. To be clear, this example is not happening, nor is it practical: it is reportedly incredibly resource-intensive, especially for mobile devices, and it's not real time. But remember, at one time it seemed impossible to distribute digital processing and now it's normal; it may one day be normal to decentralize digital content, including realtime content.

Latency, interoperability, and standards

In the meantime, blockchain platform development brings the familiar time-honored conflicts of interoperability, both technically and logistically. As you can imagine, it is very expensive and thorny to build a blockchain ecosystem at all, but especially for what we do—digital asset management, content serving, video conferencing, digital signage, emergency notifications, and anything that involves live content or realtime streaming. It is not very scalable yet, and there are latency problems with verification speed: 7 transactions per second. That will be somewhat reduced in applications that don’t require verification; verifying a 1 MB block takes 10 seconds, but current applications are based on time not being an issue for obvious reasons. Blockchain will get faster, but it will be fast enough for other industries long before it is fast enough for us. 

You could think of it this way: It makes AVB look like a walk in the park. Like blockchain, AVB got a vast amount resources and development from the wider world of IoT, but that did not so easily translate back to the niche of AV systems--even though, AVB is based on standards that were already in our DNA.

“Oh, it’s too early for standards.” That’s what Marly Gray, the principal programmer for Microsoft’s Azure Blockchain Engineering told a gathering of hundreds of interested financiers, analysts and executives last summer.

With that statement, you can pretty much set your horizon for AV on the Blockchain.

See our full Need to Know for more facts about blockchain.

Need to Know More?Have a burning question about blockchain — or maybe request for a different topic you’d like to see us tackle? Email us at needtoknow@nbmedia.com and we’ll put our top minds on it!

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