Blockchain for the data centre – value add or just more hype?

Use cases for Blockchain are growing at an exponential rate - though it's still early days, Don Sheppard can see applications for data centre operation as well.

Blockchain – also known as distributed ledger technology – is becoming the platform of choice for online value transfer and has even been called the next generation of the Internet, much like the World Wide Web was in the 1990s. Although the Blockchain was launched almost a decade ago by Satoshi Nakamoto (in his famous 2008 Bitcoin paper), it remains a source of rapid innovation and is deployed today mainly by early adopters. There are, however, a wide range of transformational use cases being tested and investigated (see for example: Is Blockchain the key to our IoT security future?), including some that could have significant impact on large-scale data centres of the future.

The data centre has emerged from its origins as a host for back-office processing and is now a complex network of distributed, virtual, interconnected systems that could be located anywhere in the world. Data centres can be implemented in a variety of form factors, ranging from public or private clouds, located on-premises or in co-location facilities and even as micro-modular edge data centres. Hybrid data centres combine these various resources into larger ecosystems that are increasingly automated and may be dynamically re-configurable to meet changing requirements.

How can the Blockchain support the advancement of data centre services? Perhaps more importantly, does using Blockchain technology bring value to the data centre? And, even more generally, can the IT industry exploit Blockchain to solve its own operational challenges?

What does Blockchain provide?

Don and Alex Tapscott, in their 2016 book, Blockchain Revolution, painted an enthusiastic picture of the Blockchain and claimed it is “an ingeniously simple, revolutionary protocol that allows transactions to be simultaneously anonymous and secure by maintaining a tamperproof ledger of value,” which is a pretty big claim.

Blockchain systems basically automate trust for peer-to-peer business interactions and can replace trusted intermediaries (such as a bank, notary or broker). To accomplish this, transactions are recorded on a distributed ledger (i.e., the Blockchain) and each participant agrees that the ledger’s contents are valid and tamper-proof. Trust is especially important when objects of value are to be transferred automatically, such as a payment for a cloud service, or a banking transaction. Immutable records are also needed for changes in ownership (as with data centre assets such as servers), which can certify a document’s validity (such as a data centre Service Level Agreement) or guarantee accuracy (ex. metering of service use in a data centre).

Blockchain can also remove the “store and forward” aspects of traditional commerce. For example, Figure 1 illustrates the transfer of funds using bank accounts and alternately using a Blockchain system such as Bitcoin.

Figure 1

Blockchain is often defined by its protocol “stack” (see Figure 2) but each active participant must also have storage for the ledger and processing for functions such as encryption, hashing and consensus. The Blockchain stack includes five parts: peer-to-peer Internet communications; protocols to populate, synchronize and preserve information in the distributed ledger; secure point-to-point interaction protocols; a user access/interface layer; and, the ability to execute business “rules” that may be stored in the ledger (i.e., smart contracts). The diagram below illustrates the multi-purpose nature of the Blockchain, showing funds transfer, journalizing data such as incidents, management of assets and identity control.

Figure 2

There are now many standards initiatives related to Blockchain and its applications including work done by formal standards organizations such as ISO/IEC TC307 and the ITU, sector activities including NIST, the Internet Society, W3C and the IEEE, and open source projects such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Hyperledger. Another Canadian example is the accelerator initiative called the C-Lab from York University’s BlockchainHub. These efforts should help to solidify Blockchain’s business value, increase its usefulness and accelerate its integration into business processes.

Blockchain in the data centre

The traditional corporate data centre is being transformed into a complex ecosystem of partners, providers, shared resources and distributed facilities. Figure 3 illustrates the expansion of the data centre and the major interfaces where trust and enforceable Service Level Agreements are required. Blockchain provides an platform that can deliver innovative systems management that is scalable as it more fully automates and secures transactions at these points.

Figure 3

Complex data centre environments include multiple vendors, multiple locations, multiple customers, scalable capacity, shared resources and adaptive configurations. For operational control, data centre managers depend on a wide range of data including identities, access controls, utilization history, performance tracking, resource consumption, security logs and metering for billing or chargeback. The data must be timely, trusted, preserved, verified and accessible to all involved parties.

One requirement that illustrates how Blockchain could support data centre operations is the ITIL-based Configuration Management Database (the CMDB). The CMDB is the heart of an IT Service Management System since it is a database of configuration items (CI’s) and their relationships. CI’s include all the data centre assets and any other items of use to service managers (procedures, policies, users, etc.). A Blockchain CMDB would serve as an authoritative repository for CI’s shared by all stakeholders. Blockchain smart contracts could perform many asset management functions such as ensuring proper maintenance, tracking licenses, or recording moves, adds and changes. Inventories and supply chain data can be shared with suppliers, operators and administrators. For example, stakeholders could all share a ledger consisting of all configuration changes, allowing patches to be delivered securely to their destination systems. Similarly, Blockchain can be used for accounting and the payment of fees. Both the equipment provider and the customer could share the ledger and use smart contracts to automate financial pay-as-you-go rules. All of this would be automated, trusted and verifiable by all parties. Even though owning the data centre and its infrastructure is no longer a necessity, trust between those who supply services and those that consume them is still necessary.

The boundaries of the data centre are also blurring – for example, hybrid cloud computing can combine a public cloud with and on-premises cloud and legacy systems, each of which may be from different providers. Or, fog and edge computing architectures will distribute data centres closer to the endpoints (people or things) and containerized microservices will allow functionality to be shifted to where it’s most needed, with very few technical restrictions. All of this requires better tracking of what is where, what is happening, what fails and who is consuming the services – all of which can be achieved with the Blockchain.

The delivery of this kind of transparency to complex distributed systems could offer tremendous benefit to data centre managers as trust can be assured in distributed multi-site data centres (e.g., multi-cloud and inter-cloud) and service management information can be fully consolidated and shared across different sites. When multiple parties are involved, disputes can be resolved more quickly and effectively by having uncontestable records on which to base the resolution.

Many other Blockchain use cases can be imagined for the data centre and may even become a necessity if the scale of systems becomes large enough – as could be the case with the Internet of Things (IoT) deployments.

Early days still

Technical improvements and enterprise-ready software will be needed to stimulate Blockchain use in the data centre. Scalability and transaction rates, for example, can be a concern for consumer-facing data centres. Multi-chain compatibility and interoperability among autonomous Blockchains will be needed and industry-wide good practices, such as for privacy, governance and compliance, will still need to be incorporated into enterprise Blockchains.

Blockchain is certainly moving well beyond its roots in e-currencies, and all indications are that it will play a valuable role in the management of IT including the data centre, but it is still early in the maturity cycle and practical technical questions remain to be solved. Trust in transactions, immutable records, automated auditability and true transparency are all new features for the data centre operations manager.