IoT on the Blockchain

Authors: Gurvinder Ahluwalia (IBM)

Blockchain has the underpinnings for a next generation IoT (Internet of Things) architecture.

In one sense, this is a different position from more popular Blockchain use cases in financial services, provenance, supply chain, health care records, corporate action, property rights, crypto currency, and numerous others. In another sense, there are fundamental similarities. Nodes. Trust. Transaction. Records, Contracts. Identity. Roles. Access. All these and more are characteristics of common Blockchain use cases. Including IoT.

Consider the Things in IoT as Blockchain nodes. Nodes require trust across interacting nodes. Trust can be established through consensus protocols, or other means. Given the trust, nodes submit transactions. Transactions trigger task or contracts asked of other nodes. A coordination layer across devices now becomes viable, the absence of which has been the Achilles’ heel in an IoT world which, by definition, is composed of heterogeneous OEM devices. The common fabric of Blockchain glues the devices in peer trustless relationship to clear transactions, allows or disallows flows across devices from otherwise heterogeneous OEM's. This results in a user-centric, web/app viewed, cognitively sensed, design experience versus most existing device centric behaviors. This decentralized IoT network may co-exist with traditional regional hubs or centralized cloud based IoT models.

The decentralized proof for IoT considers economic viability and monetization from IoT. In places with scarce or variably priced electricity, device can autonomously barter or negotiate on the Blockchain based on user defined contracts and preferences. Distribution of content to devices -- be it software upgrades to Things or food menu pricing content to digital displays in a franchised network of restaurants or ad content to rented screen space on large format displays or flight status and gate assignment content to airport screen and mobile travel apps -- in all these cases can be submitted, settled, and cleared in decentralized peer manner from nodes on the Blockchain.

Given the directional agreement everyone seems to have, i.e., we are headed to an IoT world not of 10 or 100's of millions of devices, but of 10's and 100's of billions of devices, re-purposing existing web and other technologies will take us only so far - which is where we are. A very different solution must be considered; one which co-exists with other forms of regional, and centralized cloud IoT solutions for purposeful analytics, other back end tasks, and certain other forms IoT use cases in a hybrid IoT world. This is not necessarily to suggest going in that the end state must become all decentralized for IoT. The approach in current open source Blockchain communities must accommodate in their design diversity of use cases without polarizing the Blockchain core towards one industry or another or towards one set of use cases or another.

Some of the visions and concepts here were tested in a PoC implemented by a team at IBM working with an external OEM customer-partner. Several learning were gained. However, several questions remain open or even un-surfaced. What should be in the minimalistic set of capabilities and Blockchain footprint for small form-factor, resource-constrained devices? What functions would such devices lean on for other more capable, resource-full devices? What protocols are suited? What other mechanism are suited to arrive at settlement and trust?

There is a body of work and learning available, yet lots to be done. In both cases, this invites a vibrant discussion which touches Blockchain, Web, IoT, and Embedded technologies.

My Background, Passion, & Unobvious Intro with Blockchain

Broadly, I do three things in my professional life. One, serve to move the industry forward on new platform and technology passions poised for pervasiveness across sectors. Two, contribute to the creation and maturity of these platforms and technologies in open community and product engineering settings. And three, create the knitting between these platforms and other parts to produce whole architecture solutions - with adoption path, change impact, and migration steps for clients in the field.

In the open source or standards context, historically and currently the above passions are motivated by: TCP/IP, Linux (Embedded), OpenStack, CloudFoundry, and now Blockchain.

I was core member of the team which designed, deployed, and operated the second largest network worldwide in commercial sector at the dawn of TCP/IP (Motorola). I led the architecture of a wireless handheld device (a forerunner to tablet) landing Embedded Linux on it for the first time by a US OEM (Texas Instruments). I have solutioned on open cloud platforms for about 700 enterprises in last 5 years and continue to do so for the North America clients and market (IBM). Have been a core member of an early grass roots experiment which shared with the industry a seminal vision and proof of IoT use case on Blockchain; and now continue to prepare client solutions of varied use cases on Blockchain (IBM). My first intro to Blockchain was via the unobvious. It was via IoT - in a team searching for a next generation architecture for IoT technology and economics.

My current role is CTO of a Technical Solutioning unit in IBM's Cloud Division. This is a client-facing architecting duty to the North America market with expertise in Cloud at intersection with IoT, Cognitive, and Blockchain solutions. Along the way, I was nominated as a member of The IBM Academy of Technology. My family and I are based in Dallas.

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