Bringing blockchain to the Internet of Things

Across the electronics industry the terms “blockchain” and “the Internet of things” (IoT) are beginning to be linked together. Blockchain first gained attention as part of the cryptocurrency wave, typified by Bitcoin, challenging the norms of financial transactions. But it's not so much monetary interactions that have caught the attention of IoT providers as it is data transactions. Blockchain at its core provides a tamper-proof, distributed, recordkeeping mechanism that looks to be highly applicable to resolving key issues associated with networks of autonomously interacting connected devices.

At a high concept level, at least, the match between blockchain and the IoT looks strong. The most compelling IoT use cases call for distributed devices interacting directly with one another rather than being coordinated through a central service. An industrial IoT system, for instance, might call for a temperature sensor at one point in a process flow to inform a valve controller at another point in the flow to adjust its setting. Yet, there often also needs to be a record of such interactions for oversight or regulatory purposes. Blockchain provides a mechanism for creating such records in multiple locations simultaneously while keeping them both consistent tamper-resistant.


In this Special Project, we examine how two of the biggest technological trends in recent years are intersecting. A list of all the articles in this series is below.


Blockchain can also support conditional interactions among devices through the mechanism of smart contracts. A smart contract is code that executes when a specific set of triggering events has occurred, working along the lines of an If-Then premise. A building automation system, for instance, might use a smart contract to have all the room air conditioners automatically raise their temperature settings by a few degrees when current sensor readings on the building mains exceed some threshold, to prevent overloading the wires. With blockchain, there is no need for a central controller to make this decision, every unit will make it for itself.

Security of communications among IoT devices has long been an industry concern, and blockchain promises assistance there, as well. In the blockchain concept many or even all the nodes in the network check the validity of message traffic before accepting and recording the transfer of data, whether that data represents a financial transaction or a sensor reading. They must reach a consensus on that validity assessment for a transfer to be acted upon, greatly reducing the opportunities for false transactions to be entered in the system.

NIST blockchain diagram

By cryptographically linking group-validated data blocks together, blockchain technology creates an immutable record of transactions that matches IoT needs. (Source: NIST)

For all the promise, however, the use of blockchain in the IoT faces many challenges. In this Special Project, Aspencore offers a peek behind the veil between hype and reality of blockchain. It begins with a brief introduction to blockchain basics, showing how Bitcoin is only one implementation of a blockchain and not necessarily the best suited to IoT needs. There is also a survey of open-source blockchain building blocks available to developers seeking to explore alternative implementations. And to keep grounded, we report on the current status of blockchain in engineering applications and assess the challenges still to overcome.

There is still much experimentation and development needed before blockchain proves itself in practical IoT applications, but the industry is optimistic that the apparent promises of combining the two will ultimately be realized. This Special Project provides a starting point for those just beginning their explorations of blockchain in the IoT. It will be followed by another Special Project that explores the use blockchain in another key industry application – the electronics supply chain.

Check out all the stories in this Special Project on blockchain and the IoT:

Blockchain Bolstering the Internet of Things
Blockchain technology may hold the key to unlocking the IoT's full potential, but will need to be properly adapted to succeed. We examine how two of the biggest technological trends in recent years are intersecting.


Basics of blockchain for the IoT
Bitcoin and the IoT are two of today's hottest trends, and they find their intersection in blockchain technology. But the blockchain of the IoT is different from the blockchain of Bitcoin.


Hyperledger Project resources for developers
Embedded applications increasingly need a solution that resists data tampering and increases transparency and accountability. Blockchain technology could meet that need and the Hyperledger Project can help.


Blockchain: Uses for engineers may happen someday
The distributed digital ledger technology is making waves in business applications, but not so much for engineering use cases. The technology is still too immature.


>> This article was originally published on our sister site, EE Times: “Blockchain Bolstering the Internet of Things.”

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