In recent times data breaches were considered the biggest worries for financial institutions, however a new reputational risk issue is now on the rise – disruption of payment systems, with even global companies struggling to cope with the after effects of such outages. In particular, two recent card payment incidents hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Firstly, there were problems encountered by BP in its petrol stations across the UK where no card payments could be accepted for several hours. This even led to some stations having to close during this time while the problems were resolved.

Then on the 8th May, VISA’s payment processing systems were unable to process transactions throughout the day across Europe and the UK. The effects of this went further than just VISA, as a range of banks and other financial institutions that were reliant on VISA’s payment systems were also impacted, meaning transactions using non-VISA branded cards were affected.

Following this recent spate of IT glitches, The Bank of England and the FCA have asked banks to report how prepared they are for IT meltdowns, stating that any outages should be limited to just 48 hours.

But how can such incidents be minimised, or even eliminated entirely, in the future? One proposed technology with the potential to effect such a change is Blockchain.

Why blockchain?

Blockchain is a de-centralised platform, every node in the network works in concert to administer the network and no single node can be compromised to bring down the entire system. It is a form of distributed ledger where each participant maintains, calculates and updates new entries into the database. All nodes work together to ensure they are all coming to the same conclusions, providing in-built security for the network. This approach can provide several benefits which could have mitigated the issues that VISA faced;

Inbuilt resiliency:

Blockchain removes the need for a centralised infrastructure and the distributed ledger automatically synchronises and runs across all nodes in the network by design. Removal of any single node in the network does not affect the overall processing of the network, and data replication and distribution is an automatic feature. The more members of the network the more resilient it becomes. The key thing point is ensuring there exist enough nodes in your network overall, and that they are distributed across a wide enough geographic area, so that any major issue in an area cannot compromise it. As example proof of this resilience in action we can look to the Bitcoin crypto-currency network, which is built on Blockchain technology. This has been functional 99.9% of the time since its inception on January the 3rd 2009. Any outages have been largely confined to resisting hacking attacks rather than the inbuilt resilience of the technology failing.

This is unlike traditional large centralised systems where resilience is provided by failover within a cluster, as well as site to site Disaster Recovery (DR) at a higher level. Implementation of effective Disaster Recovery plans and procedures can be quite costly due to the large amount of hardware and data replication required. As well as the logistical difficulties involved in testing A DR setup effectively. As a result most businesses often do not do so, so when the worst happens they are not prepared to deal with it efficiently – as was seen with VISAs outage problems. As Disaster Recovery is implicitly built into how Blockchain works, implementing a Blockchain technology solution removes these issues.

History of itself:

Most centralised databases keep information that is up-to-date at a particular moment. More or less, they are a snapshot of a moment in time. Blockchain databases are able to keep information that is relevant now, but also all the historical information that has come before. Blockchain can create databases that have histories of themselves, growing like ever-expanding archives of their own history while also providing a real-time portrait.

It is the expense required to compromise or change these databases that have led people to call a Blockchain database immutable. It is also where one can start to see the evolution of the database into a system of record. In the case of VISA and other payment systems this can be used as an audit trail to track the state of transactions at all stages.

So why not blockchain right now?

Performance:

While Blockchains can be used systems of record and are ideal as transaction platforms, they are considered relatively slow when compared to traditional database systems. While there will certainly be improvements to this performance, the nature of Blockchain technology means that some speed is sacrificed. The way distributed networks are employed in Blockchain technology means they do not share and compound processing power like traditional centralised systems. Instead they each independently service the network; then compare the results of their work with the rest of the network until there is a consensus that an event happened.

Confidentiality:

In its default format, Blockchain is an open database, everyone can write a new block into the chain and anyone can read a block in the chain. Private Blockchains can be created, as well as hybrid limited-access Blockchains, or ‘consortium’ Blockchains, which can be permissioned so that only participants with the appropriate access can write to or read from them. If, however, confidentiality is the only goal then Blockchain databases offer no advantage over traditional centralised databases. Securing information on a Blockchain network requires a lot of cryptography, and a related computational burden for all the nodes in the network. A traditional database avoids such overhead and can be implemented ‘offline’ to make it even more secure.

In conclusion, Blockchain is an emerging digital disruptor technology – where it will ultimately end up no-one can say for certain. While many may say it is a flash in the pan, equally as many contend that it is the next major digital revolution. The potential is certainly there to attempt to solve some of the most common problems in the digital space, by deploying innovative Blockchain-based solutions. In this instance, performance limitations currently mitigate against it being a solution for ultra-high volume centralised transactional system issues. As Blockchain node processing efficiency improves however, it will increasingly become a more viable proposition – bringing with it all the attendant benefits which have been outlined previously.

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