Interest in blockchain platforms has been growing significantly as a way to streamline supply chains, improve traceability, simplify trade and improve financial transactions. A lot of this interest started with the speculative frenzy surrounding Bitcoin, which is based on an older blockchain platform that faces challenges with energy consumption and speed.
Modern blockchain platforms have been developed to help overcome these limitations and provide practical value for other business uses and applications. "We are seeing multiple enterprises adopt blockchain platforms for some of their application needs," said Suseel Menon, senior analyst at Everest Group, an IT advisory firm.
Menon sees the most interest in areas that require multiparty cooperation or data exchange. Blockchain applications in supply chain tracking, trade finance, digital assets and identity management are going beyond the pilot stage. Menon is also seeing a fair bit of activity in using blockchain platforms for building certain functions of ERP, such as vendor management and supply chain management.
Alex-Paul Manders, director at Information Services Group, an IT advisory firm, said the evolution of blockchain platforms to date has promoted heightened awareness of decentralized finance, or DeFi, for driving new business models that pose significant threats to traditional banking, finance and supply chain finance.
Manders predicted that blockchain platforms could disrupt legacy supply chain businesses and technology processes. For example, U.S. requirements for pharmaceutical companies to track and trace products and materials call for a new approach for supply chain participants to share and transact data more efficiently and with more transparency than previously required. Blockchain technology could be the answer.
According to Menon, the top three blockchain frameworks for these use cases are R3 Corda, Hyperledger and Ethereum, with EOSIO and Quorum gaining ground.
Here are nine of the top blockchain platforms to consider.
Introduced in 2013, Ethereum is one of the oldest and most established blockchain platforms. It provides a truly decentralized blockchain that is comparable to the Bitcoin blockchain network. Manders said its key strength is that it enables true decentralization with support for smart contracts. Its key weaknesses include slow processing times and higher transaction processing costs compared to other platforms. Besides its role as a blockchain platform that underpins enterprise applications, it has its own cryptocurrency called ether.
The Ethereum platform is seeing widespread adoption by technologists who build decentralized applications, or dApps, on the Ethereum network. For example, there are numerous platforms and exchanges for nonfungible tokens (NFTs) -- a type of digital asset that can be exchanged on a blockchain. It has a mature ecosystem of tools for writing smart contracts using the Solidity programming environment, which runs on the Ethereum Virtual Machine. However, alternative blockchain networks can process transactions much faster at potentially lower cost than Ethereum, though many observers expect this to change after Ethereum adopts a more efficient security mechanism.
It also has an active developer community orchestrated by the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, which has more than 250 members, including Intel, JPMorgan and Microsoft.
2. IBM Blockchain
IBM Blockchain is a private, decentralized blockchain network that has been the most successful with enterprise clients who are less risk-averse, Manders said. He sees the biggest opportunities in using it to link into enterprise cloud and legacy technologies more seamlessly than is possible in other decentralized networks.
The IBM Blockchain developer tool was designed to be flexible, functional and customizable. IBM has also invested in creating a user-friendly interface to simplify critical tasks, such as setting up, testing and rapidly deploying smart contracts.
Rakesh Mohan, IBM director of development for blockchain solutions, said the company has seen significant progress in financial services and banking, as well as supply chain. Some examples of successful blockchain apps include IBM Food Trust, which has completed more than 18 million transactions representing more than 17,000 products, and Blockchain Community Initiative in Thailand, which supports services like payment obligations and enterprise auctions for 22 Thai banks.
3. Hyperledger Fabric
Hyperledger Fabric is a set of tools that help create blockchain applications championed by IBM and The Linux Foundation. It was built from the ground up with enterprise distributed ledger uses in mind. It has a rich ecosystem of components that can be plugged into a modular architecture. It works well in closed blockchain deployments, which can improve security and speed. It also supports an open smart contract model that can support various data models, such as account and unspent transaction output, or UTXO, models (see sidebar).
Key features to consider
Blockchain platforms consist of a wide range of components, which enables enterprises to select the appropriate components for different kinds of capabilities, said Chris Georgen, founder and chief architect at Topl, which is building a blockchain for sustainability.
Georgen started building out the blockchain technology stack for Topl's core applications in 2017 from a mix of open source components. He found it useful to examine these four key features when evaluating blockchain platforms and components:
- Whether a platform is open (that is, a public blockchain) or closed (a private blockchain) and how that affects speed and security. Anyone can join a public blockchain, which can make it easier to set up for small-business users, such as farmers. The downside is that open blockchains are not as fast. Many of the blockchain code bases can be modified to be either open or closed.
- Consensus mechanism, such as Proof of Work, Proof of Stake (PoS) or Byzantine fault tolerance. Proof of work is the older mechanism used in Bitcoin and Ethereum. The others are newer and less proven but faster and more efficient, according to Georgen.
- Ledger technology and how it records the transactions. This relates to how the blockchain keeps track of information. Popular approaches include an account model and UTXO. An account model records the balance, whereas the UTXO model is analogous to cash with serial numbers in your wallet. The account model is used in the blockchain platforms Ethereum, Stellar, Tron and EOSIO. IBM Blockchain, Hyperledger Fabric and Hyperledger Sawtooth use UTXO.
- Intended smart contract functions for capturing business logic on the blockchain. Popular programming languages include Ethereum Solidity, WebAssembly languages and Digital Asset Modeling Language.
Hyperledger Fabric can also improve data privacy by isolating transactions in channels or enabling the sharing of private data on a need-to-know basis in private data collections. It also enables high-speed transactions with low latency of finality and confirmation, according to its proponents.
Arnaud Le Hors, senior technical staff member of blockchain and web open technologies at IBM, who also chairs the Hyperledger Technical Steering Committee, said the latest developments add support for an organization to join a channel without copying the whole history of the ledger. This enables a quicker startup process with less storage required. There is an active and diverse community around Hyperledger Fabric that is working on adding more features related to consensus algorithms, additional privacy options for GDPR compliance and operational improvements.
4. Hyperledger Sawtooth
Another open source blockchain initiative championed by IBM and The Linux Foundation, Hyperledger Sawtooth uses a novel consensus mechanism called Proof of Elapsed Time that can integrate with hardware-based security technologies to allow "trusted execution environments" of program code to run in secure enclaves, which are protected areas of computer memory.
Shawn Amundson, CTO of Bitwise IO and Hyperledger Sawtooth maintainer, said the most common applications are for developing supply chain systems and customizing Sawtooth for specific purposes, such as novel consensus algorithms.
Work has started on a Sawtooth Library that will enable developers of custom distributed ledgers to pick and choose which pieces of Sawtooth they use in their application. At the same time, Sawtooth is adopting Splinter for networking, which will provide dynamic private circuits (groups of nodes); Hyperledger Transact for transaction processing, which will extend smart contract capabilities; and Augrim for consensus, which will expand the number of supported algorithms.
5. R3 Corda
There is some debate whether R3 Corda is technically a blockchain or an alternative type of distributed ledger. It uses a novel consensus mechanism in which transactions are cryptographically linked but does not periodically batch multiple transactions into a block. Even the official Corda site describes it as "both a blockchain and not a blockchain." One of the key benefits of this approach is that all transactions are processed in real time, which can improve performance compared to other types of blockchains.
The R3 consortium has a strong following in the financial industry, since Corda provides an attractive approach for financial transactions and smart contracts with strong security. Leading proponents include Bank of America, HSBC, Intel and Microsoft.
Manders said Corda has a strong chance of becoming the de facto network of insurance-related transaction processing. However, it faces competition from other federated blockchain networks that can process transactions faster and cheaper.
In development since 2014, Tezos is an older platform that supports decentralized applications, smart contracts and novel financial instruments, such as NFTs, which can be thought of as a modern variation on trading cards that are tied to digital assets. The platform supports a dynamically upgradeable protocol and modular software clients that enable it to adapt to new uses. The Tezos community has been upgrading the platform at a rapid clip, with recent enhancements that have improved performance and increased the size limit on smart contracts.
The EOSIO blockchain platform was first launched as an open source project in 2018. It is optimized for developing decentralized applications and smart contracts. It uses a complex consensus mechanism based on PoS that provides better performance than older mechanisms like Ethereum, according to its proponents. It also includes support for a governance feature for voting on changes to the platform.
Key strengths include fast transactions and advanced account permission features for deploying applications. Over 400 applications have been developed on the platform, including identity management, supply chain management and gaming.
Stellar is a newer blockchain platform optimized for various kinds of decentralized finance applications. It uses the Stellar Consensus Protocol, which purportedly can speed the time required to process and finalize transactions on a public blockchain network. It also includes security mechanisms for shutting out bad or questionable actors in a financial transaction. It has been adopted by several companies for international trade and exchanging money across borders.
Quorum is a customized version of Ethereum pioneered by financial services company JPMorgan. It takes advantage of the core work on the Ethereum blockchain platform and repackages it into a hardened environment suitable for banks. It has been optimized to support high-speed transactions between institutions like banks and insurance companies on a private network. It also adds various privacy enhancements to Ethereum to improve support for regulations like GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California.