There’s more than one way to put code on a blockchain

In most discussions about blockchains, it doesn’t take long for the notion of “smart contracts” to come up. In the popular imagination, smart contracts automate the execution of interparty interactions, without requiring a trusted intermediary. By expressing legal relationships in code rather than words, they promise to enable transactions to take place directly and without error, whether deliberate or not.

From a technical viewpoint, a smart contract is something more specific: computer code that lives on a blockchain and defines the rules for that chain’s transactions. This description sounds simple enough, but behind it lies a great deal of variation in how these rules are expressed, executed and validated. When choosing a blockchain platform for a new application, the question “Does this platform support smart contracts?” isn’t the right one to ask. Instead, we need to be asking: “What type of smart contracts does this platform support?”

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When a hash is worth a million words

By now it’s clear that many blockchain use cases have nothing to do with financial transactions. Instead, the chain’s purpose is to enable the decentralized aggregation, ordering, timestamping and archiving of any type of information, including structured data, correspondence or documentation. The blockchain’s core value is enabling its participants to provably and permanently agree on exactly what data was entered, when and by whom, without relying on a trusted intermediary. For example, SAP’s recently launched blockchain platform, which supports MultiChain and Hyperledger Fabric, targets a broad range of supply chain and other non-financial applications.

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A detailed look at the non-blockchain blockchain

As time goes on, the blockchain world has been separating into two distinct parts. On one hand, public blockchains with their associated cryptocurrencies have enjoyed a remarkable recent comeback, minting many a multi-millionaire. On the other hand, use of permissioned or enterprise blockchains has been growing quietly but steadily, seeing their first live deployments across multiple industries during 2017.

One interesting question to consider is the appropriate level of similarity between these two types of chain. Both implement a shared database using peer-to-peer networking, public–private key cryptography, transaction rules and consensus mechanisms that can survive malicious actors. That’s a great deal of common ground. Nonetheless, public and private blockchains have different requirements in terms of confidentiality, scalability and governance. Perhaps these differences point to the need for radically divergent designs.

The Corda platform, developed by the R3 banking consortium, adopts a clear stance on this question. While some aspects were inspired by public blockchains, Corda was designed from scratch based on the needs of R3’s members. Indeed, although R3 still uses the word “blockchain” extensively to help market their product, Corda has no chain of blocks at all. More than any other “distributed ledger” platform I’m aware of, Corda departs radically from the architecture of conventional blockchains.

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Solving real problems in infrastructure, finance and e-commerce

It’s exactly two years since we published “Avoiding the pointless blockchain project“, a checklist of questions to ask when assessing permissioned blockchain use cases. The post obviously struck a nerve and continues to attract thousands of monthly readers on our site and others. People are still hungry for content that goes beyond the blockchain hype to assess this technology objectively.

The good news is that, judging by our incoming inquiries, the market’s understanding of blockchains has greatly improved over the last two years. I would estimate that 60% of the blockchain use cases we now hear are commercially and technically sound. Nonetheless there is still plenty of confusion – companies determined to use a blockchain when a regular database would fit better, startups using “blockchains” in their branding but nowhere else, and widely reported but pointless blockchain projects which use a single node or a group of nodes under a single party’s control.

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One cycle ends, the next one begins

Today we’re delighted to announce the release of MultiChain 1.0 into production and the addition of 14 new members to the MultiChain Partner Program. These include two multinational consulting companies: Cognizant and Indra Sistemas, as well as twelve other companies: Aicumen, Bambusoft, Chainfrog, CrimsonLogic, Encrypgen, Hypatia Technologies, Maroon Studios, Medici Ventures, Project Radium, SolarLab, The Apollo Group and Tilkal.

Apart from that, we’re already hard at work developing MultiChain 2.0 and hope to have a first preview release available (with the richer data model for streams) before the end of the year.

More details can be found in the press release below.

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What they are and what they’re not. Probably.

Here at Coin Sciences, we’re best known for MultiChain, a popular platform for creating and deploying permissioned blockchains. But we began life in March 2014 in the cryptocurrency space, with the goal of developing a “bitcoin 2.0″ protocol called CoinSpark. CoinSpark leverages transaction metadata to add external assets (now called tokens) and notarized messaging to bitcoin. Our underlying thinking was this: If a blockchain is a secure decentralized record, surely that record has applications beyond managing its native cryptocurrency.

After less than a year, we stopped developing CoinSpark, due to both a push and a pull. The push was the lack of demand for the protocol – conventional companies were (understandably) reluctant to entrust their core processes to a public blockchain. But there was also a pull, in terms of the developing interest we saw in closed or permissioned distributed ledgers. These can be defined as databases which are safely and directly shared by multiple known but non-trusting parties, and which no single party controls. So in December 2014 we started developing MultiChain to address this interest – a change in direction that Silicon Valley would call a “pivot”.

Two years since its first release, MultiChain has proven an unqualified success, and will remain our focus for the foreseeable future. But we still take an active interest in the cryptocurrency space and its rapid pace of development. We’ve studied Ethereum’s gas-limited virtual machine, confidential CryptoNote-based systems like Monero, Zcash with its (relatively) efficient zero knowledge proofs, and new entrants such as Tezos and Eos. We’ve also closely observed the crypto world’s endless dramas, such as bitcoin’s block size war of attrition, the failures of numerous exchanges, Ethereum’s DAO disaster and Tether’s temporary untethering. Crypto news is the gift that keeps on giving.

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Where we are today and where we’re going tomorrow

Today we’re delighted to release the second beta of MultiChain 1.0 for Linux, Windows and Mac (for now the Mac version requires compilation). This concludes the planned development of MultiChain 1.0 – with the exception of any bug fixes, the final release of MultiChain 1.0 over the summer will be unchanged.

This month also marks two years since the first alpha release of MultiChain in June 2015. As with any new product, we weren’t sure how the market would react, and knew there was only one way to find out – release a minimum viable product, meaning an initial version which provides significant value but is preliminary by design. Thankfully, unlike our first product CoinSpark, MultiChain received a strong and immediate positive response. This was accompanied by a tsunami of sensible feature requests, many of which we’ve now implemented. In parallel to the product’s development, usage has also grown remarkably by every measure. For example, the MultiChain website received under 3,000 visitors in July 2015, and now brings in ten times that number monthly.

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Where flexible thinking is preferable to dogmatism

“The highest good, than which there is no higher, is the blockchain, and consequently it is immutably good, hence truly eternal and truly immortal.”
— Saint Augustine, De natura boni, i, 405 C.E. (with minor edits)

If you ask someone well-informed about the characteristics of blockchains, the word “immutable” will invariably appear in the response. In plain English, this word is used to denote something which can never be modified or changed. In a blockchain, it refers to the global log of transactions, which is created by consensus between the chain’s participants. The basic notion is this: once a blockchain transaction has received a sufficient level of validation, some cryptography ensures that it can never be replaced or reversed. This marks blockchains as different from regular files or databases, in which information can be edited and deleted at will. Or so the theory goes.

In the raucous arena of blockchain debate, immutability has become a quasi-religious doctrine – a core belief that must not be shaken or questioned. And just like the doctrines in mainstream religions, members of opposing camps use immutability as a weapon of derision and ridicule. The past year has witnessed two prominent examples:

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