Blockchain Technology Explained: Introduction, Meaning, and Applications

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The 21st century is all about technology. With the increasing need for modernization in our day-to-day lives, people are open to accepting new technologies. From using a remote for controlling devices to using voice notes for giving commands; modern technology has made space in our regular lives. Technologies like augmented reality and IoT that have gained pace in the past decade and now there’s a new addition to the pack i.e. Blockchain Technology.

Blockchain – The revolutionary technology impacting different industries miraculously was introduced in the markets with its very first modern application Bitcoin. Bitcoin is nothing but a form of digital currency (cryptocurrency) which can be used in the place of fiat money for trading. And the underlying technology behind the success of cryptocurrencies is termed as Blockchain.

There’s a common misconception among people that Bitcoin and Blockchain are one and the same, however, that is not the case. Creating cryptocurrencies is one of the applications of Blockchain technology and other than Bitcoin, there are numerous applications that are being developed on the basis of the blockchain technology.

What is a Blockchain?

what is blockchain

In the simplest terms, Blockchain can be described as a data structure that holds transactional records and while ensuring security, transparency, and decentralization. You can also think of it as a chain or records stored in the forms of blocks which are controlled by no single authority. A blockchain is a distributed ledger that is completely open to any and everyone on the network. Once an information is stored on a blockchain, it is extremely difficult to change or alter it.

Each transaction on a blockchain is secured with a digital signature that proves its authenticity. Due to the use of encryption and digital signatures, the data stored on the blockchain is tamper-proof and cannot be changed.

Blockchain technology allows all the network participants to reach an agreement, commonly known as consensus. All the data stored on a blockchain is recorded digitally and has a common history which is available for all the network participants. This way, the chances of any fraudulent activity or duplication of transactions is eliminated without the need of a third-party.

In order to understand blockchain better, consider an example where you are looking for an option to send some money to your friend who lives in a different location. A general option that you can normally use can be a bank or via a payment transfer application like PayPal or Paytm. This option involves third parties in order to process the transaction due to which an extra amount of your money is deducted as transferring fee. Moreover, in cases like these, you cannot ensure the security of your money as it is highly possible that a hacker might disrupt the network and steal your money. In both the cases, it is the customer who suffers. This is where Blockchain comes in.

Instead of using a bank for transferring money, if we use a blockchain in such cases, the process becomes much easier and secure. There is no extra fee involved as the funds are directly processed by you thus, eliminating the need for a third party. Moreover, the blockchain database is decentralized and is not limited to any single location meaning that all the information and records kept on the blockchain are public and decentralized. Since the information is not stored in a single place, there’s no chance of corruption of the information by any hacker.

How Does a Blockchain Work?

What is bloackchain
Source: Fuat Şanlı (Dribbble)

A blockchain is a chain of blocks that contain data or information. Despite being discovered earlier, the first successful and popular application of the Blockchain technology came into being in the year 2009 by Satoshi Nakamoto. He created the first digital cryptocurrency called Bitcoin through the use of Blockchain technology. Let’s understand how a blockchain actually works.

Each block in a blockchain network stores some information along with the hash of its previous block. A hash is a unique mathematical code which belongs to a specific block. If the information inside the block is modified, the hash of the block will be subject to modification too. The connection of blocks through unique hash keys is what makes blockchain secure.

While transactions take place on a blockchain, there are nodes on the network that validate these transactions. In Bitcoin blockchain, these nodes are called as miners and they use the concept of proof-of-work in order to process and validate transactions on the network. In order for a transaction to be valid, each block must refer to the hash of its preceding block. The transaction will take place only and only if the hash is correct. If a hacker tries to attack the network and change information of any specific block, the hash attached to the block will also get modified.

The breach will be detected as the modified hash will not match with the original one. This ensures that the blockchain is unalterable as if any change which is made to the chain of blocks will be reflected throughout the entire network and will be detected easily.

In a nutshell, here’s how blockchain allows transactions to take place:

  1. A blockchain network makes use of public and private keys in order to form a digital signature ensuring security and consent.
  2. Once the authentication is ensured through these keys, the need for authorization arises.
  3. Blockchain allows participants of the network to perform mathematical verifications and reach a consensus to agree on any particular value.
  4. While making a transfer, the sender uses their private key and announces the transaction information over the network. A block is created containing information such as digital signature, timestamp, and the receiver’s public key.
  5. This block of information is broadcasted through the network and the validation process starts.
  6. Miners all over the network start solving the mathematical puzzle related to the transaction in order to process it. Solving this puzzle requires the miners to invest their computing power.
  7. Upon solving the puzzle first, the miner receives rewards in the form of bitcoins. Such kind of problems is referred to as proof-of-work mathematical problems.
  8. Once the majority of nodes in the network come to a consensus and agree to a common solution, the block is time stamped and added to the existing blockchain. This block can contain anything from money to data to messages.
  9. After the new block is added to the chain, the existing copies of blockchain are updated for all the nodes on the network.

Blockchain Features

what is blockchain

The following features make the revolutionary technology of blockchain stand out:

Decentralised

Blockchains are decentralized in nature meaning that no single person or group holds the authority of the overall network. While everybody in the network has the copy of the distributed ledger with them, no one can modify it on his or her own. This unique feature of blockchain allows transparency and security while giving power to the users.

Peer-to-Peer Network

With the use of Blockchain, the interaction between two parties through a peer-to-peer model is easily accomplished without the requirement of any third party. Blockchain uses P2P protocol which allows all the network participants to hold an identical copy of transactions, enabling approval through a machine consensus. For example, if you wish to make any transaction from one part of the world to another, you can do that with blockchain all by yourself within a few seconds. Moreover, any interruptions or extra charges will not be deducted in the transfer.

Immutable

The immutability property of a blockchain refers to the fact that any data once written on the blockchain cannot be changed. To understand immutability, consider sending email as an example. Once you send an email to a bunch of people, you cannot take it back. In order to find a way around, you’ll have to ask all the recipients to delete your email which is pretty tedious. This is how immutability works.

Once the data has been processed, it cannot be altered or changed. In case of the blockchain, if you try to change the data of one block, you’ll have to change the entire blockchain following it as each block stores the hash of its preceding block. Change in one hash will lead to change in all the following hashes. It is extremely complicated for someone to change all the hashes as it requires a lot of computational power to do so. Hence, the data stored in a blockchain is non-susceptible to alterations or hacker attacks due to immutability.

Tamper-Proof

With the property of immutability embedded in blockchains, it becomes easier to detect tampering of any data. Blockchains are considered tamper-proof as any change in even one single block can be detected and addressed smoothly. There are two key ways of detecting tampering namely, hashes and blocks.

As described earlier, each hash function associated with a block is unique. You can consider it like a fingerprint of a block. Any change in the data will lead to a change in the hash function. Since the hash function of one block is linked to next block, in order for a hacker to make any changes, he/she will have to change hashes of all the blocks after that block which is quite difficult to do.

Types of Blockchains

what is blockchain

Though Blockchain has evolved to many levels since inception, there are two broad categories in which blockchains can be classified majorly i.e. Public and Private blockchains.

Before heading towards the difference between these two, let’s keep a check on the similarities that both public and private blockchain have:

  • Both Public and Private blockchain have peer-to-peer decentralized networks.
  • All the participants of the network maintain the copy of the shared ledger with them.
  • The network maintains copies of the ledger and synchronizes the latest update with the help of consensus.
  • The rules for immutability and safety of the ledger are decided and applied on the network so as to avoid malicious attacks.

Now that we know the similar elements of both these blockchains, let’s learn about each of them in detail and the differences between them.

Public Blockchain – As the name suggests, a public blockchain is a permissionless ledger and can be accessed by any and everyone. Anyone with the access to the internet is eligible to download and access it. Moreover, one can also check the overall history of the blockchain along with making any transactions through it. Public blockchains usually reward their network participants for performing the mining process and maintaining the immutability of the ledger. An example of the public blockchain is the Bitcoin Blockchain.

Public blockchains allow the communities worldwide to exchange information openly and securely. However, an obvious disadvantage of this type of blockchain is that it can be compromised if the rules around it are not executed strictly. Moreover, the rules decided and applied initially have very little scope of modification in the later stages.

Private Blockchain – Contrary to the public blockchain, private blockchains are the ones which are shared only among the trusted participants. The overall control of the network is in the hands of the owners. Moreover, the rules of a private blockchain can be changed according to different levels of permissions, exposure, number of members, authorization etc.

Private blockchains can run independently or can be integrated with other blockchains too. These are usually used by enterprises and organizations. Therefore, the level of trust required amongst the participants is higher in private blockchains.

Popular Applications of Blockchain Technology

what is blockchain
Source: Sumeet – Evontech

Though Bitcoins and cryptocurrencies are the first popular application of Blockchain technology, they are not the only ones. The nature of Blockchain technology has led businesses, industries, and entrepreneurs from all around the world to explore the technology’s potential and make revolutionary changes in different sectors.

While the basic idea of trustworthy records and giving the power in the hands of users has enormous potential, it sure has raised a lot of hype in the markets too. The magic of this technology sure has the power to transform industries given the usage is planned and executable in actual senses. Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff and find out how Blockchain can be useful in actual implementation.

Smart contracts

Different businesses deal with each other in order to exchange services or products. All the give and take terms and conditions are signed by the involved parties in the form of agreements or contracts. However, these paper-based contracts are prone to errors and frauds which challenges the trust factor between both the parties and raises risks. Blockchain brings forward an amazing solution to this problem through Smart Contracts.

Smart contracts perform similar functions as paper-based agreements. The differentiating factor about smart contracts is that these are digital as well as self-executable in nature. Self-executable meaning that when certain conditions in the code of these contracts are met, they are automatically deployed. Ethereum, an open source blockchain platform has introduced smart contracts in the Blockchain ecosystem. Smart contracts can be used for different situations or industries such as financial agreements, health insurances, real estate property documents, crowdfunding etc.

For example, Blockchain smart contracts can be used in healthcare to manage drug supply.

Once the name and quantity of a drug is shipped from a manufacturing company to be delivered ahead to the pharmacist, a smart contract with all the valid data like the information of the drug, the quantity of supply etc. can be created. This smart contract will be responsible for managing the entries throughout the entire supply chain between different intermediaries. Since the smart contract works on certain defined conditions, no one can alter them or make any changes in the contract thus, ensuring trust and authenticity of the drugs.

Government Elections

No matter how secure government elections are made, the chances of frauds through anti-social elements always persists. The current voting system relies on manual processing and trust. Even if security breaches and frauds are eliminated, the chances of manual errors cannot be ignored. In such cases, the best solution is to automate the overall process with the help of smart contracts.

Blockchain smart contracts provide a modern system through which these common issues can be easily eliminated. Entries in the smart contracts will allow transparency and security while maintaining the privacy of the voters thus, enabling fair elections.

Identity management

The world is getting more digitized with every passing day. Consider financial transactions happening online for instance, you can easily login with your credentials and security pin in order to access your funds. However, in this case, no one can ensure the identity of the person taking out the money. If your username and password are hacked by someone, there’s no way to secure your money.

The need of the hour is to have a system that manages individual identification on the web. The distributed ledger technology used in blockchains offers you advanced methods of public-private encryption using which, you can prove your identity and digitize your documents. This unique secure identity can work as a saviour for you while conducting any financial transactions or any online interactions on a shared economy. Moreover, the gap between different government bodies and private organizations can be filled through a universal online identity solution that blockchain can provide.

Intellectual Property Protection

Digital content or information can easily be reproduced and distributed with the aid of the internet. Due to this, people from all around the world hold the power to copy, replicate and use it without giving credits to the actual producer of the content. There are copyright laws to protect such issues but in the current scenario, these laws aren’t appropriately defined according to common global standards. Meaning that any law which is valid in the US might not stand true in Australia.

Even if there’s any copyright applied to any intellectual property, people easily lose control over their data and suffer on financial terms. With the aid of Blockchain technology, all the copyrights can be stored in the form of smart contracts which will enable automation in businesses along with the increase in online sale thus, eliminating the redistribution risk.

Blockchain for IP registry will help the authors, owners or users to get clarity of copyright. Once they register their work online, they’ll own the evidence which will be tamper-proof. As blockchain is immutable in nature, any entry once stored on the Blockchain cannot be changed or modified. The owner of the work will have the overall authority over the ownership as well as the distribution of the content.

Conclusion

Other than these few examples, the revolutionary technology of Blockchain holds a high potential of applications in many different industries and sectors. While some industries have already started adopting blockchain in their businesses, many are still exploring the best possible ways to start with.

Blockchain is a new name in the world of technologies but it is definitely the one to last. Even in the early stages, the technology has gained huge popularity starting with their very first application of cryptocurrencies. More areas of applications are being discovered and tested with each passing day. Once the technology is adopted and accepted on a global level, it’ll transform the way we live today.


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