It's hard to go to any tech event today without hearing talk of blockchain. Proponents of the technology tell us that blockchain can solve virtually all of the world's problems. Big-name tech companies like Oracle and Microsoft are in the blockchain game. Meanwhile, other folks question whether blockchain is more than just a fad. Is it worth it to take the time to learn blockchain?
We can't answer this question definitively, but we can provide healthy perspective on the importance of blockchain technology to IT careers. Keep reading for a few good arguments in favor of taking the time to learn blockchain, and a few reasons why it might not be worth your time.
We'll focus in this article on perspective that technical folks can appreciate--like how novel blockchain really is in a technological sense--rather than the economic, political and regulatory issues associated with blockchain. You can read plenty about the latter in other publications, but finding deep technical assessments of blockchain's long-term viability is harder.
What Is Blockchain Technology?
First, let's make clear what we mean when we talk about learning blockchain technology.
We're referring to the technical skills required to develop, deploy or manage software applications that interact with the blockchain in some way.
While blockchain technology was at first associated solely with cryptocurrency--namely, bitcoin--the blockchain ecosystem has grown immensely since bitcoin's birth a decade ago. Today, blockchain databases are being leveraged as part of efforts to revolutionize everything from the healthcare records storage to IoT connectivity. They might even solve the opioid epidemic.
Indeed, it makes most sense to think about blockchain in broad terms as a new way to manage data, rather than as a type of finance solution.
Thus, taking the time to learn blockchain and how it really works, as well as how to write blockchain-based software logic like smart contracts, will potentially prove very important for advancing IT careers in a number of different fields.
Three Reasons Why Blockchain Is Brilliant
Still, blockchain remains a relatively young technology. Is it actually viable enough to stick around for the long term? Here are three reasons to think it will:
- It is not hard to learn blockchain. Although blockchain can seem complex and intimidating to the uninitiated, it's not actually very complicated. A blockchain is basically just a regular database with a few special features, like append-only data storage and decentralized control. This means that the learning curve for understanding blockchain technology is not actually very steep for people who come from technical backgrounds.
- Blockchain brings automation to a new level. Smart contracts, which automatically enforce an agreement without the intervention of a third party, can achieve a level of automation that conventional applications just can't support. From a software-development and delivery perspective, smart contracts are a true killer feature that bode well for the long-term viability of blockchain technology in a variety of contexts.
- Blockchain enables a high degree of data availability. Because blockchain databases are distributed across a large network, they inherently offer high data availability. As long as your blockchain network is sufficiently large, the chances that all nodes would disappear, and your data would be lost, are very low. This makes blockchains different from conventional databases, where the failure of a few servers could mean your data is no longer available.
Three Reasons Why Blockchain Is Technically Flawed
Blockchain pessimists might point out the following technical criticisms as arguments against investing time in learning blockchain technology:
- Blockchain doesn't ensure privacy. Blockchain-based data is not as private in most cases as people tend to think. It's often possible to trace transactions and link data to specific users, whose identity can sometimes be deduced. Although add-on features like ring signatures can help to enhance blockchain privacy, the harsh reality is that blockchains don't magically deliver the data privacy guarantees that some of their proponents promised early on.
- Blockchain has a scalability problem. The folks who designed the first blockchains didn't do a great job of figuring out how their blockchains would scale. Today, as a result of the number of people now using blockchains like the one that powers bitcoin, it can sometimes take hours for a transaction to complete. And this problem will only get worse as the blockchain grows in size. Newer blockchain architectures have emerged to address the scalability issue, but the most popular blockchains, like bitcoin and ethereum, don't really have great scalability solutions.
- Blockchain could kill the planet (and your electricity budget). You may have heard that bitcoin is projected to consume all of the world's electricity by 2020. These claims have been disputed, and other blockchains are not as energy-hungry. Still, the electricity costs associated with blockchain technology are significant, and could hamper blockchain's ability to provide viable data storage over the long term.
There you have it: Three reasons why blockchain could truly be the next big thing in the tech world and three reasons to believe it's technically flawed and overhyped. Which school of thought do you subscribe to?