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WHAT IS IT?

A blockchain is, simply stated, a distributed data structure, a digital ledger. Transactions submitted by a network of users are collected into “blocks.” These are linked into a chain, with each block referencing the secure hash of the preceding block in the chain. Thus, the chain is always growing. The chain is maintained by a peer-to-peer network of specialized computing nodes, but any user can access and examine the full ledger at any time.

“It’s a relatively simple concept, and that’s what makes it elegant,” says CSC Distinguished Engineer Bill Ohnemus, a principal in CSC’s insurance industry practice in the Americas.

WHAT IS IT NOT?

It’s not a database, at least not a traditional one. Data does not reside in a central location or server. A blockchain is distributed across a peer-to-peer network and therefore does not require a central “authority” to store and secure it.

And it’s not Bitcoin — or at least, not exclusively. “Bitcoin is just one application of a blockchain and happens to be a very popular one,” says CSC Distinguished Engineer Faisal Siddiqi, an architect for CSC Mobile Insurance. The alternative currency has been influential in bringing the value of blockchain technology — and its possible applications — to light.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?

One of the top benefits is trust. Unlike a traditional database, where trusted users must have secure access to a central server, in a blockchain trust is built into the transactions, which are secured by cryptography functions similar to those that secure many other types of transactions on the Internet.

Other benefits include transparency (all transactions are visible to all participants) and immutability. It’s nearly impossible to make changes to transactions in the blockchain without detection, which reduces the chance of fraud and censorship.

Rick Wilhelm, vice president of technology, CSC Global Business Services, also notes the availability and interoperability of the blockchain. “It’s allowing the transactions themselves to be broadly available for interaction, instead of worrying about the systems working with each other to pull the records out from a centralized, closely held repository,” he says.

HOW CAN IT BE USED?

Possible applications run the gamut, from speeding up banking transactions to improving loyalty rewards programs, from maintaining wills and land registries to opening up a new way for musicians to control the sale of their music.

Here are some potential applications identified by CSC experts:

INSURANCE

As usage-based insurance for vehicles gains traction, made possible by the Internet of Things (IoT) and the connected car, blockchain becomes a natural discussion point for enabling the associated transactions.

Martin Bartlett, a chief product architect in CSC’s insurance industry practice and a CSC Distinguished Engineer, says blockchain could be used to complete micropayments for a pay-as-you-go auto insurance model. The telemetry in the car could record and transmit mileage data, using the blockchain to charge customers on a per-mile basis.

HEALTHCARE

A blockchain could safely store and share information that’s commonly held in an electronic health record, says Siddiqi. The system could go a step further by completing insurance transactions based on the blockchain.

“It bothers me that when I go to the doctor, there’s very little transparency. The authority [to use my data] is all over the place, and there’s no easy way for me to get permission to use my own data,” he says. “Blockchain could be the solution.”

MANUFACTURING

As the IoT continues to progress in manu- facturing, enterprises need a central source for tracking and maintaining data provided by multiple vendors in the supply chain. Wilhelm sees blockchain as a potential option.

The technology, he says, could be used to capture and store data in the cloud, so multiple parties can gain visibility to a shared view of part, component and assembly data as manufacturing and logistics advance and obstacles are overcome.

CROSS-INDUSTRY

With biometrics and other technologies shifting the realities of identity authentication, blockchain seems an intriguing next step in the evolution.

Ohnemus describes the potential to create a “digital identity” that, once verified, creates a permanent history of a person’s transactions. “Once you build that initial block that contains your identity, it should be immutable and something you can use to prove identity.”

As CSC experts and others continue to imagine, investigate and bring to life blockchain-based applications, it’s clear the technology has the potential to bring big changes to the world of business ­— and the impact will be felt across multiple industries.