Blockchain, sometimes referred to as Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), makes the history of any digital asset unalterable and transparent through the use of decentralization and cryptographic hashing. Blockchain is an especially promising and revolutionary technology because it helps reduce risk, stamps out fraud and brings transparency in a scalable way for myriad uses.
What is Blockchain?
Blockchain, sometimes referred to as Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), makes the history of any digital asset unalterable and transparent through the use of decentralization and cryptographic hashing.
A simple analogy for understanding blockchain technology is a Google Doc. When we create a document and share it with a group of people, the document is distributed instead of copied or transferred. This creates a decentralized distribution chain that gives everyone access to the document at the same time. No one is locked out awaiting changes from another party, while all modifications to the doc are being recorded in real-time, making changes completely transparent.
Of course, blockchain is more complicated than a Google Doc, but the analogy is apt because it illustrates three critical ideas of the technology:
Blockchain is an especially promising and revolutionary technology because it helps reduce risk, stamps out fraud and brings transparency in a scalable way for myriad uses.
How Does Blockchain Work?
The goal of blockchain is to allow digital information to be recorded and distributed, but not edited. In this way, a blockchain is the foundation for immutable ledgers, or records of transactions that cannot be altered, deleted, or destroyed. This is why blockchains are also known as a distributed ledger technology (DLT). Blockchain consists of three important concepts: blocks, nodes and miners.
Every chain consists of multiple blocks and each block has three basic elements:
• The data in the block.
• A 32-bit whole number called a nonce. The nonce is randomly generated when a block is created, which then generates a block header hash.
• The hash is a 256-bit number wedded to the nonce. It must start with a huge number of zeroes (i.e., be extremely small).
When the first block of a chain is created, a nonce generates the cryptographic hash. The data in the block is considered signed and forever tied to the nonce and hash unless it is mined.
Miners create new blocks on the chain through a process called mining.
In a blockchain every block has its own unique nonce and hash, but also references the hash of the previous block in the chain, so mining a block isn't easy, especially on large chains.
Miners use special software to solve the incredibly complex math problem of finding a nonce that generates an accepted hash. Because the nonce is only 32 bits and the hash is 256, there are roughly four billion possible nonce-hash combinations that must be mined before the right one is found. When that happens, miners are said to have found the "golden nonce" and their block is added to the chain.
Making a change to any block earlier in the chain requires re-mining not just the block with the change, but all of the blocks that come after. This is why it's extremely difficult to manipulate blockchain technology. Think of it as "safety in math" since finding golden nonces requires an enormous amount of time and computing power.
When a block is successfully mined, the change is accepted by all of the nodes on the network and the miner is rewarded financially.
One of the most important concepts in blockchain technology is decentralization. No one computer or organization can own the chain. Instead, it is a distributed ledger via the nodes connected to the chain. Nodes can be any kind of electronic device that maintains copies of the blockchain and keeps the network functioning.
Every node has its own copy of the blockchain and the network must algorithmically approve any newly mined block for the chain to be updated, trusted and verified. Since blockchains are transparent, every action in the ledger can be easily checked and viewed. Each participant is given a unique alphanumeric identification number that shows their transactions.
Combining public information with a system of checks-and-balances helps the blockchain maintain integrity and creates trust among users. Essentially, blockchains can be thought of as the scalability of trust via technology.
What are the Common Applications of Blockchain?
First proposed as a research project in 1991, the blockchain concept predated its first widespread application in use: Bitcoin, in 2009. In the years since, the use of blockchains has exploded via the creation of various cryptocurrencies, decentralized finance (DeFi) applications, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and smart contracts.
A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency that is secured by cryptography, which makes it nearly impossible to counterfeit or double-spend. Many cryptocurrencies are decentralized networks based on blockchain technology—a distributed ledger enforced by a disparate network of computers. A defining feature of cryptocurrencies is that they are generally not issued by any central authority, rendering them theoretically immune to government interference or manipulation.
Decentralized Finance (DeFi) Applications
Decentralized finance (DeFi) is an emerging financial technology based on secure distributed ledgers similar to those used by cryptocurrencies. The system removes the control banks and institutions have on money, financial products, and financial services.
Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are cryptographic assets on a blockchain with unique identification codes and metadata that distinguish them from each other. Unlike cryptocurrencies, they cannot be traded or exchanged at equivalency. This differs from fungible tokens like cryptocurrencies, which are identical to each other and, therefore, can serve as a medium for commercial transactions.
A smart contract is a self-executing contract with the terms of the agreement between buyer and seller being directly written into lines of code. The code and the agreements contained therein exist across a distributed, decentralized blockchain network. The code controls the execution, and transactions are trackable and irreversible. Smart contracts permit trusted transactions and agreements to be carried out among disparate, anonymous parties without the need for a central authority, legal system, or external enforcement mechanism. While blockchain technology has come to be thought of primarily as the foundation for bitcoin, it has evolved far beyond underpinning the virtual currency.