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Blockchain in business, The Market & Trends – an interview with Billon
6 years of working on the introduction of the blockchain technology into common use. Challenges issued by the ever-changing legal landscape of finances and data, but also by the change of view on performance and use of resources.
There’s hardly anyone better to discuss blockchain than Andrzej Horoszczak: CTO, CVO, but most importantly – the founder of Billon. With pleasure I invite you to read our conversation regarding not only trends and the market, but technology and opportunities brought by the new elements of the IT infrastructure.
Business, the market, trends
Jacek Fischbach: Andrzej, it’s a great pleasure to have you on our blog. Let’s start with something big: is blockchain a MUST nowadays or just a NICE2HAVE?
Andrzej Horoszczak: “Nice2Have” mostly means we like something that we cannot afford. Many companies still see blockchain in that category, since there are not many experts who can find the right use case for blockchain and implement it. On the other hand, companies take a more favourable approach to that technology, as it is no longer identified mostly with cryptocurrencies, but with security and transparency. Introducing blockchain, even in a small part of their operations, is a great PR material for headlines.
When blockchain is today a MUST? Some regulatory requirements, such as EU’s durable medium, actually force you to use blockchain to remain compliant. Sometimes the pressure from shareholders or the board also causes companies to implement blockchain, even if it’s not really a thought through decision. We can see so many videos online telling us “Use a blockchain, doesn’t matter which one” which sometimes influence corporate thinking. The reality is that blockchain technologies vary quite a lot, and for this particular use case you MUST have blockchain capable of on-chain storage for full text of documents.
There is one strong use case for blockchain which will make it a MUST in the near future: saving money. Moving information from central servers to a distributed ledger is a simple way to reduce information management costs. The pressure to cut operational expenses will increase when the economic downturn anticipated by the economists arrives. Therefore, even if enterprises consider blockchain as a NICE2HAVE, in the next few years it will become a MUST across market sectors.
JF: What industries in Poland will be changed by blockchain in the nearest future and why?
AH: Blockchain is a technology which reduces costs and increases the level of trust. We expect that it will be implemented by businesses whose priority is to protect customers’ sensitive data and ensure they have access to said data. What is more, it is important to give customers the certainty that nothing bad may happen with their documents. That is why blockchain will likely be adapted by such sectors like banking, medical care, pharmaceutics and insurance.
JF: How do the projects conducted by Billon fit into the bigger picture of the digital transformation? Is blockchain a complete solution for them, or is it a part of something bigger?
AH: The digital transformation revolutionizes companies’ operations and their organizational architecture. Sensitive data will be processed by next-generation technologies, like blockchain, artificial intelligence, big data or neural networks. Blockchain, as you can see, is a part of this new IT architecture. If a company decides to implement blockchain and change the paradigm of data management, it will not be afraid of other new technologies.
JF: How will blockchain surprise us in the next 2-3 years? What do we not expect?
AH: Blockchain is an evolving and rapidly maturing set of technologies. End-user adoption is further dependent on regulatory & government initiatives. For instance, in 2018 the Polish Office of Consumer Protection Agency has made a far-reaching decision, demanding stronger protection of consumer information via the durable medium. The banking sector suddenly had to start looking for a solution to the durable medium problem and came across the blockchain. One thing is certain: companies need to completely revamp their IT architecture, as its centralization and galloping costs made it unsustainable. Blockchain might be the answer to their needs.
JF: While building up Billon, were you surprised by the market?
AH: Billon first started as a deep research project as far back as 2012. During that time we have experienced the bitcoin bubble and the cryptocurrency winter so it is really difficult to surprise us anymore For sure unexpected, both to us and our customers, were the changes in the regulatory environment, which eventually became the extra reason to implement blockchain. Regulators – with their interpretation of legislation and their approach for innovative solutions – will to a large extent decide how big blockchain’s impact on the market will be.
Technology, Integration, Implementation of Blockchain
JF: When should we turn to Billon, Stratis or Ethereum?
AH: The question is rather should we use public or private blockchain… or a permissioned one. The main difference here is a matter of control. Public blockchain enables transferring money and information in an environment that lacks any certainty as to whether the parties have honest intentions, are who they claim to be or whether their identity can be confirmed. Creating a system in which those transactions take place is indeed a significant achievement. Private blockchain excludes the participation of the wide audience and limits the distribution of data to just a few server rooms. Permissioned blockchain presents “the third way” were nodes are freely available and the network is open to a wide audience. However, some pre-defined nodes have privileged functions, for instance, responsibility for KYC and AML processes. So in this setup, we start off with basic information about transaction participants. It’s not a full “know your customer” procedure that is required in banks, but the information makes it possible to identify the person “on the other side”.
Our main customers, that is financial institutions, do however have a problem with using public blockchains, because a potential network participant with malicious intentions cannot be stopped. There is no way to block a user. You also can’t tell people “there are criminals at this address, don’t do business with them”. People will still be able to do it and nobody will stop them as long as they can make enough money out of it. It is difficult to regulate a system like that. A privileged blockchain enables control over users, which is one of the major advantages of this solution. It is simply a more civilized blockchain, ready to meet the expectations of market regulators.
The Billon solution „behind the scenes”
JF: Does Billon support smart contracts and if so – how?
AH: Billon’s DLT currently supports a large but limited set of governing rules e.g. statically constructed contract. After watching how the power and flexibility of smart contracts were abused in some implementations we have taken a cautious approach to opening our own logic. We currently have a project underway to create a safer form of smart contracts that would form a distributed virtual machine to interact with our ledger.
JF: Which consensus mechanism do you use?
AH: We use a cooperative consensus mechanism combined with a privileged proof of stake architecture. We believe our approach is unique, combining the easy and fast onboarding of public ledgers with risk management and regulatory compliance through licensed institutions.
JF: Are there limits in the number of documents, nodes, etc.?
AH: Not in practical terms. Billon’s platform has been designed since inception to be lightweight and scale to hundreds of thousands and even millions of nodes efficiently.
JF: Which technologies do you support (.Net, Java, C++, node, own programming language?)
AH: We use different technologies at different layers. Web, Android, iOS and desktop have their own native tech stack. Middleware is in Java, with the protocol and general ledger components written in C++.
JF: Do you support dApps?
AH: Not currently as an open system. Today our commercial clients have asked us to build the apps they can use themselves. In the future, like with smart contracts, we wish to fully open our system to external dApp development. To offer a clean, clear system with mature APIs takes time and we want to get it right by learning from our clients first before we move to the next stage.
JF: How does Billon implement the solutions with their customers? Agile? Waterfall?
AH: In the internal development, we use the agile approach (Scrum). When working for a client we can adjust ourselves to their practices and workstyle. We have worked both on projects carried out with the agile methodology (more often), as well as waterfall.
JF: How to begin working with blockchain? PoC? Prototype? A pilot? Or maybe full implementation right away?
AH: First of all, education. It is our job to translate the low-level technological marvels of democratised distributed computing to tangible product benefits for businesses and end-users. The more common the knowledge about blockchain becomes, the more often and more thoughtful its use will be. Our duty is to educate both the decision-makers, as well as the end users. We should start with a meeting and workshops, not at the C-level but with people who are responsible for internal processes in their daily job. They have to understand the needs of their organization and how the blockchain implementation may help with them. Blockchain is not some miracle cure for every company ailment, but its wise use will reduce costs and bring profit.
The rising demand for new solutions in the area of secured service of the increasing amount of data we gather is a big challenge. The AI development and machine learning will eventually force us to dramatically rebuild the IT infrastructure. The fascinating and little-known blockchain is one of the technologies of the future that are taking place right now.
Every new technology offers both opportunities and risks. Only reasonable use may bring expected results. When venturing on that path, it’s a good idea to use the experience of entities that have already had their ‘youthful indiscretions’ when it comes to new technology and are now mature and can give some advice based on their own past.
I personally, as always, recommend starting with a first step – a small one – that poses little risk: create a prototype and verify if an idea indeed makes sense. Such an approach extremely increases the time2market, as well as reduces costs and the risk of error. That’s how we avoid the trap of the CATCH 22 paradox, quite typical for innovations, which goes like that: an initially interesting idea leads from the start to a pressure of wanting the full comprehension of costs, time and risk… which is quite difficult (if not impossible!) to reliably determine.