Blockchain may be an inefficient and over hyped variation of existing distributed computing… does it matter?

When it comes to building software, cloud systems architects are the present day luminaries.  These guys are the ones dealing with some of the most challenging aspects of computing today: distributed systems.  Building software that can scale globally across time and space is insanely difficult to get right.  These are the guys who actually achieve it, so when they talk about Blockchain, its worth listening.
It is worth understanding that fundamentally, Blockchain is basically an alternative solution to challenges in distributed computing.  Many of the “innovations” behind recent blockchain advances are really only reapplying well known computing concepts from the distributed computing space.  So, when someone like Clemens Vasters, a lead architect for Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform, talks about Blockchain and compares it to distributed computing, it’s worth listening.
The core of his argument is that blockchain effectively represents a neat packaging of a few core distributed computing concepts.  He suggests it has novel application for a handful of use cases but ultimately is inefficient as a solution for many problems compared to other practices, approaches and techniques of distributed computing.
In a nutshell, he struggles to see how blockchain “is even remotely as significant as the hype wants to make us believe.”  He has a point.  Blockchain, just like big data, AI, Internet of Things are over hyped tech buzzwords to which few really fundamentally understand but many are excited about. 
Technology isn’t magic. If you sprinkle Blockchain or AI on a broken process it doesn’t fix the process.  Technology is a tool, not the solution.  Yet far too few people really understand this fundamental point.  If you have garbage inputs or processes then you’re still going to end up with garbage coming out no matter what technology or buzzwords you throw at it.
So, Blockchain may just be one massive over hyped buzz word.  It is understandable that leading distributed computing luminaries are scratching their heads wondering how it is any different or better than what they’re already doing.  Though a better question is whether it really matters if its an over hyped buzz word?  From a Bermuda perspective, I don’t think it does.  We are in a position to capitalize on considerable interest and investment in tackling distributed computing problems.  Call it what you like, what matters is people are actively investing in solving problems.
What would you think if I were to tell you that in my early teens I was looking up information for school projects, chatted with people all over the globe and hosted massive multiplayer online games.  Nothing special right?  The big difference is that I was doing all that in the early 90s on telnet before the World Wide Web gained traction and long before the internet became what we know it as today.  What is commonplace and accessible for everyone today was a highly technical niche accessible to few back then.  If you told me back then that people would be able to do all of these things 20+ years in the future I may have scratched my head confused as to what stops everyone if it was already possible with technology of the day? It was absolutely possible, just accessible only to the few who understood how to do it.
Is it possible to solve most of the problems posed as targets for blockchain based solutions using existing technology?  Yes, it is.  Are those technologies more efficient and better suited technologies as solutions for those problems?  Yes, in many cases they are.  Are those technologies accessible to the average developer such that solutions can be built at scale?  That’s where I’m not so convinced.  Speaking as a tech professional, distributed computing is hard and we lack the platforms to make it accessible for mass consumption and problem solving.
So why does Blockchain, as an inefficient, over hyped technology have appeal?  Well, for one it is about the sheer amount of investment capital, open source community support and will of the community backing not just it, but a focus on distributed computing based solutions in general.  That investment and interest is the kind that could drive tremendous change in making distributed computing problems significantly more accessible.  That alone, has tremendous value as it means far more people will be able to solve problems they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.  So, yes, blockchain is over hyped.  Does it matter though?

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