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AWS' blockchain approach takes divergent paths

AWS was slow to embrace blockchain but now offers two approaches to the concept. Review the specs of Quantum Ledger Database and Amazon Managed Blockchain.

Two recent additions to AWS' fleet of services take different approaches to blockchain, with each focused on a particular set of user demands.

These AWS blockchain tools -- Amazon Managed Blockchain and Quantum Ledger Database (QLDB) -- take divergent approaches to transaction management. Managed Blochchain is designed for decentralized trust, while QLDB is built for centralized trust -- an architectural distinction that will greatly impact the type of workloads each can address.

Let's dig deeper into each service and help you determine the best fit for your organization.

How AWS blockchain tools work

QLDB is a specialized ledger database that's not technically blockchain. Rather, it's blockchain-like, designed to address some of the issues that have given rise to the emerging technology. It's append-only, which means it doesn't drop or rewrite data. It uses the cryptographically verifiable properties of blockchain to build a database with a centralized trust, which differs from blockchains that rely on distributed, peer-based verification. It creates an immutable journal where users can search an application's change history in order to spot trends or analyze their data.

QLDB automatically scales, so like several other AWS managed databases, users don't have to provision any underlying resources. It supports ACID (atomicity, consistency, isolation and durability) transactions and an SQL-like API.

Managed Blockchain, as the name implies, is also a managed service. Unlike QLDB, it does support distributed trust. The AWS blockchain service automatically builds a network fabric based on open source frameworks -- currently limited to Hyperledger Fabric, with Ethereum on the roadmap.

Once the network is established, you can create more users in your account or invite other AWS accounts to join on peer nodes and process transactions. It uses AWS Key Management Service for certificate authority and works with Amazon Virtual Private Cloud endpoints. Users can also replicate copies of network activity to QLDB for analysis.

AWS plans to add other features soon, including performance tracking, automatic replacement of failed nodes and a voting API.

Find the right fit for QLDB and Managed Blockchain

AWS built these services to address different uses. For example, highly regulated companies that need a ledger but don't want to build one from scratch could use QLDB. The service could also be used for system-of-record apps or to track internal supply chains.

Managed Blockchain could also be used to track transactions in a supply chain. But it would be better suited as a ledger that documents the movement of goods across a set of interconnected suppliers and distributors. Other examples include cross-company consumer rewards programs and financial and trading consortiums, according to AWS.

Amazon Managed Blockchain targets rank-and-file IT teams that find the do-it-yourself blockchain tools on the market too complex to implement. Rather than sideline a project or attempt it and fail, these IT organizations can consume blockchain from their cloud provider.

Those that want more control over their workloads can use AWS Blockchain Templates, which still require the user to manage the underlying compute and storage. AWS also has a blockchain marketplace.

More options for blockchain in the cloud

Microsoft did not miss the blockchain bandwagon. Azure runs and supports blockchain in a wide array of services available in its marketplace. The advantage with this approach is that you can choose the blockchain software and tools that meet your requirements better than the cloud-native offerings. The disadvantage with this build-your-own approach on a public cloud provider is that you have all operational and maintenance responsibilities.

Google is taking the same approach but with a limited amount of blockchain technology partnerships. Google announced a partnership last year with two blockchain-focused companies -- Digital Asset and BlockApps -- to offer distributed ledger technology services on Google Cloud Platform. Google also supports Ethereum, Bitcoin's main competitor. You can count on support for more non-native systems as blockchain grows in popularity and as these public clouds become the most popular target platforms.

A simpler, integrated blockchain

The best way to approach blockchain is to first figure out your needs. There are all kinds of blockchain networks, for all types of purposes. Whether you apply blockchain for supply chain, secure payments or data integration, you need a plan in place for that particular route.

The cloud-native systems from AWS are simpler, with deeper integration than the other cloud-native services, such as storage and compute. The quest seems to be to make blockchain easier to install and configure. The complexity of this technology is what slows down adoption, and AWS continues to target this problem.

This was last published in February 2019

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