When blockchain technology was introduced to the public in 2008 (via Satoshi Nakamoto’s famous white paper), it would have been hard to predict that private or consortium blockchains would become popular. But recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about this in the digital currency community. Many companies are beginning to experiment with blockchain by implementing private and consortium chains, although some people are critical of this. This discussion not only centers on use cases and benefits, but whether non-public blockchains are an appropriate application of the protocol to begin with.
In order to understand this debate, let’s take a look at the differences between public, private and consortium blockchains. Learning about what makes each unique is important for decoding the hype — and it can also help you decide which of these three might be best for you
Public Blockchain – This is the model of Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin, and could be thought of as the original distributed ledger structure. For a number of reasons, it is still considered by many to be the prototype for all blockchains, although it is not without drawbacks.
In simple terms, public blockchains can receive and send transactions from anybody in the world. They can also be audited by anybody, and every node has as much transmission power as any other. Before a transaction is considered valid, it must be authorized by each of its constituent nodes via the chain’s consensus process. As long as each node abides by the specific stipulations of the protocol, their transactions can be validated, and thus add to the chain
Since each node on a public blockchain has as much transmission and receipt power as any other, they are not only decentralized, but fully distributed. The difference between “decentralized” and “distributed” is illustrated by the following graphic:
Many blockchain enthusiasts believe in the value of networks that are not only decentralized — which most closely resembles the current model of the Internet — but distributed. This includes Tim Berners-Lee, who founded the World Wide Web in 1989. Berners-Lee has proposed that blockchains can be used to reinvent the web in a more distributed and peer-to-peer fashion.
Decentralization and distribution are seen by many to be a major benefit of public blockchains, but not everybody shares this ethos. But this is not the only benefit of public blockchains, of course. Perhaps most importantly, their transparency makes them very secure: because they can be audited by anybody, it is easy to detect fraud on the chain. Security-via-openness is a principle well known in the open source world, and this strategy is also popular among some in the digital currency community. For example, all of the tools and content produced by the Ethereum team is open source. This helps to make Ethereum widely accessible and more secure.
Transparency does not, however, mean that public blockchains are completely unhackable. Any time data enters a digital network, it is subject to security breaches and unethical uses. Although public blockchains looks to be highly secure right now, there are always going to be bad actors interested in exploiting weaknesses in the system. This is often through hacking methods that are difficult to predict and account for — so claims of one-hundred-percent security in any technology should always be read with a critical eye
Public blockchains are also expensive, and not just in terms of money. The time and energy required to process transactions on public chains is more intensive than that of non-public chains. This is because every single node on the chain must authorize each new transaction before it is added to the chain, which requires a large amount of electricity and time (not to mention money).
In private blockchains, only specific, pre-chosen entities have the ability to create new transactions on the chain (this is known as “write permissions”). Thus, a private blockchain is a closed network that offers constituents the benefits of the technology, but is not necessarily decentralized or distributed, even among its members. The extent to which each constituent can view (“read”) and create and validate transactions (“write”) is up to the developers of the chain.
Because decentralization has been viewed by many as intrinsic to the revolutionary potential of blockchain, the point of private blockchains might be called into question. However, blockchains offer much more than a structure that accommodates decentralization. Among other features, their strong cryptography and auditability offers them more security than traditional protocols (although not bulletproof, as noted), and they allow for the development of new cryptocurrencies. Furthermore, voting platforms, accounting systems, and any type of data archive can arguably be optimized with blockchain technology. We are still in the early days of blockchain technology, and the power it has to reshape older systems has yet to be seen.
A typical use case for a private blockchain is intra-business: when a company decides to implement blockchain as a business solution, they may opt for a chain to which only company members have access. This is useful if there’s no need for anybody outside of the company to become part of the chain, because private blockchains are more efficient than public and consortium chains. Also, because they are smaller and contained, it is easier for a consensus process or other technical stipulation to be altered on a blockchain. So, for example, if the developers or proprietors want to change the cryptographic method which runs its consensus process, it is much easier to do this on a private blockchain than a public or consortium chain.
Also — to point out something fairly obvious — private blockchains are private. If there is any need for the data on a chain to be restrict to certain individuals, a private blockchain can restrict viewing permissions to these people.
Companies that use private blockchains can ultimately save time and money, assuming there is no need for a public component to their blockchain. This may not be as wildly different from older digital structures as public blockchains, but it can still be extraordinarily powerful.
A consortium blockchain is part public, part private. This split works at the level of the consensus process: on a consortium chain, a pre-selected group of nodes control the consensus process, but other nodes may be allowed to participate in creating new transactions and/or reviewing it. The specific configuration of each consortium chain (i.e., which nodes have the power to authorize transactions via the consensus process, which can review the history of the chain, which can create new transactions, and more) is the decision of each individual consortium.
Of course, the drawbacks of public and private blockchains are still very much present in the case consortium chains. This all depends on the way each consortium is constructed: a more public consortium chain will bear the burdens of public chains, while a more private one might suffer from the relative lack of openness and disintermediation. The right configuration depends on the needs and vision for each specific chain. Strategy and tailoring are always necessary to get the best solution.