Enterprises Building Blockchain Confront Tech Limitations

Blockchain isn’t going anywhere, but centralized authorities aren’t either.

That realization was the general takeaway at the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation’s annual fintech symposium in New York City on Thursday where executives behind some of the most mature blockchain platforms currently in the works took the stage to discuss the benefits and limitations of the nascent technology.

While in some cases, enterprises, including the DTCC, which conducts $1.5 quadrillion dollars in securities transactions per year, have found that blockchains are more powerful than first expected, it’s clear that there are still significant hurdles to overcome.

“We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t,” said Michael Bodson, the CEO of the DTCC, adding:

“We’ve wrestled with the technology’s limitations, but we’re also uncovering new possibilities to help lead the digital transformation of the post-trade environment.”

During Bodson’s opening remarks, he set the groundwork for the rest of the day’s talks by recounting some of the lessons learned by the DTCC’s ongoing implementation of blockchain in its $11 trillion Trade Information Warehouse (TIW).

Designed to reduce the time it takes to clear over-the-counter derivatives, unexpected obstacles in the process have resulted in a delay of a commercial launch from this quarter to next year. Given the TIW’s relatively low volume compared to the rest of the DTCC business, he doesn’t expect any broader rollout of the technology any time soon.

“At the DTCC, we seamlessly process 60 million trades each day, and during peak times like we saw last month, we handled as many as 90 million transactions,” he said. “It would be impossible to do this today using a distributed ledger.”

He continued, citing a Deloitte report that showed out 26,000 blockchain projects that were started since 2016, as evidence of the narrowing scope of blockchain’s potential utility. Of those blockchain projects he said only eight percent are currently still active.

“As the industry has come to the realization that blockchain’s potential isn’t limitless, companies are focusing their resources on initiatives that can deliver real client value,” he said.

The limits of open source

In a panel following Bodson’s opening remarks, DTCC chief technology architect Rob Palatnick further elaborated on the limits of blockchain, namely those arising from the technology’s open-source roots.

Even as he acknowledged that “pretty much everyone in this room is looking to the open-source community for validation,” he cautioned that the old idealism that public, open-source blockchains can solve everything is starting to fade.

“The DTCC has been approached with some in the industry who say we’re involved in open source, which is good, but you need to think about a hardened proprietary set of ledgers for the things you do,” he said.

As such, businesses like the DTCC are exploring permissioned distributed ledgers that are connected via more open blockchains, what Palatnick called a “network of networks.” Several speakers at the event described the idea in various ways, including Accenture managing director Wynn Davies, who called it a “multi-stranded” blockchain.

At the core of this concept is the idea that public blockchains will never fully be able to give enterprise counterparties the trust they need to run their regulated businesses.

“We need to have neutral parties who are acting in everyone’s best interest,” Davies said, citing the DTCC and the Monetary Authority of Singapore as leaders in this push.

The trick, according to Davies, is going to be reimagining the incentive models so major players like the DTCC are willing to give up the “short-term gains” that result from holding onto innovative technologies, in order to let the benefits of blockchain accrue to the broader economy.

Expanding on that concept, Palatnick described a blockchain ecosystem where the DTCC and other infrastructure providers might manage “governance nodes,” where they provide some services to their customers but also allow them to connect directly, in a peer-to-peer way, for other services…

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