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Blockchain for IBM Z

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:39 PM


When blockchain first emerged as the next big thing, it arrived as the technology behind bitcoin. At that time, blockchain was an x86 phenomenon. Today it's moved to Linux and runs on multiple platforms, including IBM Z and LinuxONE. From the start, blockchain naturally benefitted from the legendary scalability, reliability, security and flexibility of Z.

No surprise, then, that IBM is bullish on blockchain, particularly on Z. As the company notes, running blockchain on a mainframe can greatly accelerate interactions with existing business data in all the big enterprise databases: CICS, IMS, TPF, DB2 and VSAM. With the capability to support 8,000 virtual machines with up to 32TB of memory and 170 dedicated processor cores, Z mainframes can run the toughest workloads—quickly, securely and with absolute reliability. Then there’s the speed—the Z memory networking capabilities can accelerate the interaction between your blockchain and your existing business data in popular databases on Z and other Z processes.

Another primary reason for adopting blockchain lies in the security and assurance that comes from having an unalterable, immutable distributed record of transactions. There's also no single point of failure since the ledger postings are copied on every node and are not declared valid until over half the nodes acknowledge the latest transaction. Advanced comprehensive security performance was also built into the z14 and z13 from the start, whether generating digital signatures or hashing encryption for blockchain. Z leverages hardware accelerators, enabling pervasive encryption not found on x86 platforms. Ultimately, pervasive encryption combined with blockchain on Z amounts to an unbeatably secure combination.

Three Blockchain Advantages for Z

The newest Z systems—announced on April 10—further enhance the blockchain experience on Z. Take, for example, the LinuxONE Rockhopper II—a slim 19 inch rack that secedes the initial Rockhopper. The z14 Model ZR1 and LinuxOne Rockhopper II each present a dramatic design change for IBM's mainframes, yet both provide the same pervasive encryption capabilities of a full-size z14 mainframe. Part of IBM’s intent is to seed new markets with mainframe technology and, according to IBM, increase the potential to sell those users on its strategic cloud-based software technologies such as blockchain, machine learning, AI and container technologies—all of which are supported by the new machines. 

Destination z was able to speak with both Rebecca Gott, Distinguished Engineer for IBM Z and LinuxONE, and Donna Dillenberger, IBM fellow, about blockchain on Z. For starters, notes Dillenberger, Z delivers better security. This starts at the hardware layer with crypto accelerators. “It’s hard for bad guys to overcome encryption hardware.” 

Then there’s the FIPS security stack. An x86 can handle FIPS 2. To go to the next level with x86, FIPS 4, you need to buy a separate card and you will still be vulnerable through the network. In terms of performance, Dillenberger adds, the fastest way to run a program is on silicon. When it comes to critical programs, they should be executed in hardware and Z’s encryption hardware is 4-15x faster than software-based encryption.

A third advantage of Z comes when multiple blockchain nodes are involved and you want them isolated. On x86 boxes, you want each node on its separate machine. For big blockchains, that translates into hundreds or even thousands of x86 machines, which becomes far too consuming. Z, on the other hand, can handle upwards of 8,000 virtual machines. You do the math: 8,000 low cost x86 machines and the overhead to support them, or one Z?

Blockchains can be as small or large as you need. More nodes, however, improve the safety through distribution and replication. You should have a minimum of four nodes in your chain, advises Dillenberger. One node alone risks getting corrupted. For additional safety, IBM blockchains are permissioned. Most other blockchains are open, meaning you don’t really know who else is on.

Blockchain on Z Use Cases

Blockchain was initially perceived as a financial services technology, and that remains one of its primary use cases—managing transactions between multiple trading partners. In recent years, however, the number of uses cases for blockchain has expanded.

For example, IBM set up a blockchain for the food industry that tracks the state of food from its origin until it reaches the consumer’s hands. If a problem arises—a case of food contamination, for example—the immutable record of blockchain can track the problem back to its source quickly and definitively.

Manufacturers can also use blockchain to track where parts originated to ensure they are legitimate warranty parts. Similarly, diamond dealers can use blockchain to track whether or not a diamond is properly mined and follow it through every step in the process to ensure it’s not a blood diamond.

Another application is medical records. “Medical records consist of a variety of data from different silos,” explains Dillenberger. By using blockchain, you can pull together this myriad of information “from different sources in a trusted way,” she says. Today, blockchains seem to be multiplying weekly.

Blockchain as a Service

Many organizations seem to be able operate blockchain for themselves. If something goes wrong, they can usually fix it, especially if someone in IT is blockchain-literate, notes Dillenberger.  Most problems arise due to the value blockchain acquires and the pressure of that responsibility. At some point, multiple companies want to participate, which can get complicated due to the responsibility placed on the blockchain operator.

While many organizations will run their own blockchain, most don’t want to be responsible for another company’s node. This can get messy as patches have to be updated and systems have to be maintained. Depending on how many partners participate in a blockchain, there’s a constant flow of partners to be added and removed. This takes work and entails responsibility.

This situation naturally gives rise to providers offering blockchain as a service. IBM stepped up early as a blockchain service provider. Others are jumping aboard as the bandwagon picks up steam. 

A year later, IBM continues to roll out blockchain initiatives based on LinuxONE. Specifically, IBM introduced a blockchain starter plan for its blockchain platform, which is currently in beta testing mode but free for developers to use until commercial release. According to IBM information, enterprise membership in IBM’s permissioned blockchain service runs at $1,000 per month. "The new plan is perfect for pilot projects and early stage development work for those who want to build solutions on the IBM Blockchain platform, which currently has over 250 active blockchain networks," says Marie Wieck, general manager of the IBM Blockchain platform.

If you have a z13 or higher, or you want to get a LinuxONE Rockhopper II, you should start thinking about blockchain for yourself and a few trading partners or join a publicly managed blockchain. If you want the benefits of blockchain without the responsibility, go to a service provider like IBM.

Alan Radding may be reached at