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Can Blockchain Intranets work?

Published Tue 19 Feb 2019

Blockchain technology is one of the biggest trends of 2019 with some banks even creating their own blockchain currencies, like JPMorgan.

This is an interesting differentiation to ‘public’ currencies like Bitcoin as JPMorgan isn’t employing a decentralised management of the hashes like public cryptocurrencies are.

What’s so great about JPMorgan’s cryptocurrency?

In fact the JPM Coin is designed to be an internal accounting unit that should speed up transactions between JPMorgan customers.

Currently when a Japanese company sends money to the US they have to convert Yen to Dollar and then send the money across the Atlantic with their bank, and only once the transaction has been received the American company gets the funds credited into their account. This process can take days, and cost a lot. But what JPMorgan promises is that if both parties are banking with them, the use of JPM Coin as an internal currency would allow the transaction to be completed within minutes and completely tamper-proof.

What’s of note is here is that the blockchain is managed centrally thus all parties need to trust JPMorgan to keep their virtual JPM Coin safe but also trust them to be able to convert it to real currencies at any time; something which smaller banks might find a little harder to convince their customers of.

How is this similar to an Intranet?

Well, just like public blockchains are accessible over the internet, an organization can make a private blockchain accessible over the Intranet. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll see it appear in SharePoint, but just in terms of access you would have to be on the internal network.

And a few more technical details are also shared between private and public blockchains, i.e. that anyone can read the entire chain if they themselves host the chain. Except that in the case of an intranet blockchain the company can control what to give access to it. So should we expect SharePoint blockchain intranets anytime soon? 

Why we won’t see blockchain SharePoint Intranets

Well, here are two problems where it shows the internet-intranet analogy doesn’t quite hold up with blockchains:

Problem 1: Not a good ‘fix’ for SharePoint security

And that’s where the the first of two problems emerges: If blockchains are meant to be a secure way of ensuring the authenticity and authorisation of a user to access something (like money), then what are they improving in intranets? Most companies already have secure and audited logins and SSO solutions, and most Intranets come with granular access permissions for each site. So what would a blockchain give you secure access to that you didn’t already have secure access for?

You already cannot access the servers, applications and databases that you aren’t authorised to view. Adding blockchain could maybe sometimes make sense; the same way that adding 2-Factor-Authentication or a Yubikey could make sense. But even though a Yubikey is a relatively niche application for accessing an Intranet, it's still relatively more widely adopted and supported than a private blockchain would ever be.

Instead if you’re looking at blockchains because you want to increase the security of your Intranet, then you could look at other more commoditized features: Encryption, Single Sign On, Two-Factor authentication, and 10 other things that most experts recommend.

Problem 2: Drive user engagement with blockchains

Blockchains are not a tool individual users use, in fact most won’t ever see the hashes they create. Instead it’s a technology that is used to verify the authenticity of things like transactions, site accesses, etc.

That means you cannot ‘drive’ engagement with blockchains but their use is in a 1:1 relationship with the technology they are underpinning. So in the case of JPM Coin they will see a lot of engagement with their blockchain because they happen to do a lot of transactions anyways – blockchain is just the method on which their transactions rely.

But if you have an app or product that not many users use, then adding blockchain into the mix is not going to magically and by itself create more engagement – that rule even applies to corporate Intranets.

This is in fact a key lesson many startups, ready to cash in on whatever the latest trend is, have not understood when they created salads, coffees and jewellery powered by blockchain.

So there you have it: Private, intranet-based blockchains can be useful for certain use cases, as JP Morgan has demonstrated, but beyond there is little enticing users to add it to their SharePoint Intranets anytime soon.

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