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To examine some of these claims, we have to define what a blockchain is and herein lies a lot of the confusion. Many companies use the word “blockchain” to mean some sort of magical device by which all their data will never be wrong. Such a device, of course, does not exist, at least when the real world is involved.
So what is a blockchain? Technically speaking, a blockchain is a linked list of blocks and a block is a group of ordered transactions. If you didn’t understand the last sentence, you can think of a blockchain as a subset of a database, with a few additional properties.
The main thing distinguishing a blockchain from a normal database is that there are specific rules about how to put data into the database. That is, it cannot conflict with some other data that’s already in the database (consistent), it’s append-only (immutable), and the data itself is locked to an owner (ownable), it’s replicable and available. Finally, everyone agrees on what the state of the things in the database are (canonical) without a central party (decentralized).
It is this last point that really is the holy grail of blockchain. Decentralization is very attractive because it implies there is no single point of failure. That is, no single authority will be able to take away your asset or change “history” to suit their needs. This immutable audit trail where you don’t have to trust anyone is the benefit that everyone that’s playing with this technology is looking for. This benefit, however, come at a great cost.
The immutable audit trail uncontrolled by any single party is certainly useful, but there are many costs to create such a system. Let’s examine some of the issues.
Creating a provably consistent system is not an easy task. A small bug could corrupt the entire database or cause some databases to be different than other ones. Of course, a corrupted or split database no longer has any consistency guarantees. Furthermore, all such systems have to be designed from the outset to be consistent. There is no “move fast and break things” in a blockchain. If you break things, you lose consistency and the blockchain becomes corrupted and worthless.
You may be thinking, why can’t you just fix the database or start over and move on? That would be easy enough to do in a centralized system, but this is very difficult in a decentralized one. You need consensus, or the agreement of all players in the system, in order to change the database. The blockchain has to be a public resource that’s not under the control of a single entity (decentralized, remember?), or the entire effort is a very expensive way to create a slow, centralized database.
Adding the right incentive structures and making sure that all actors in the system cannot abuse or corrupt the database is likewise a large consideration. A blockchain may be consistent, but that’s not very useful if it’s got a lot of frivolous, useless data in it because the costs of putting data into it are very low. Neither is a consistent blockchain useful if it has almost no data because the costs of putting data into it are very high.
What gives the data finality? How can you ensure that the rewards are aligned with the network goals? Why do nodes keep or update the data and what makes them choose one piece of data over another when they are in conflict? These are all incentive questions that need good answers and they need to be aligned not just at the beginning but at all points in the future as technology and companies change, otherwise the blockchain is not useful.
Again, you may be wondering why you can’t “fix” some broken incentive. Once again, this is easy in a centralized system, but in a decentralized one, you simply cannot change anything without consensus. There’s no “fixing” anything unless there’s agreement from everyone.
A traditional centralized database only needs to be written to once. A blockchain needs to be written to thousands of times. A traditional centralized database needs to only checks the data once. A blockchain needs to check the data thousands of times. A traditional centralized database needs to transmit the data for storage only once. A blockchain needs to transmit the data thousands of times.
The costs of maintaining a blockchain are orders of magnitude higher and the cost needs to be justified by utility. Most applications looking for some of the properties stated earlier like consistency and reliability can get such things for a whole lot cheaper utilizing integrity checks, receipts and backups.
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