Blockchain is the foundation of a distributed ledger system that holds out the best promise for protecting all sorts of assets—digital and physical.
Does blockchain have a future beyond selling digital NFT trinkets like Melania Trump’s watercolors and short video clips of great moments in sports? Intel says yes. In his recent online editorial titled “Blockchain and the New Custom Compute Group,” Intel’s senior vice president and general manager of the Accelerated Computing Systems and Graphics Group, Raja Koduri, announced that Intel has created a new accelerator group called the “Custom Compute Group” and will be shipping a custom blockchain accelerator designed by this group later this year. Why is this a big deal? Because blockchain is the foundation of a distributed ledger system that holds out the best promise for protecting all sorts of assets – digital and physical. Intel is working with Argo Blockchain, BLOCK (the company formerly known as Square), and GRIID Infrastructure as initial customers for this product.
If you think blockchain is all hoopla, I can’t blame you. There is far too much hype surrounding blockchain, thanks to Bitcoin, and Koduri’s editorial invokes the Metaverse and Web 3.0, which gives even more digital spin to this announcement. Certainly, there are plenty of digital assets that benefit from blockchain protection, in the metaverse or otherwise.
However, blockchain technology can be used to solve real-world problems too, besides creating alternative currencies and NFTs for privileged, first-world, wannabe investors. Blockchain can manage any real resource, whether you’re talking about diamonds, spare parts, pharmaceuticals, or food. Whenever you need to track material ownership and possession throughout a supply chain whenever many different business organizations are involved in the resource workflow, blockchain is a great technology.
A distributed blockchain ledger is nothing more than a historical record of all transactions related to a resource, where all transactions are stored in the databases of all interested parties. Let’s take diamonds as an example. Diamond ore is mined, crushed, sorted, graded, cut, polished, boxed, mounted in a setting, sold, and resold. There are multiple transportation events between each of these events. Diamonds are valuable enough and unique enough to track and there are even a laser marking systems already in place that are used to track individual stones. In a private blockchain network that tracks diamonds, every party in the network has a secure copy of the same blockchain ledger that accounts for each stone.
Take food as another example. Whether it’s leaf lettuce, beef, or some other consumable, we’ve seen many global food scares and recalls in the past few years. Instead of letting mass recalls scare large populations and causing massive food waste, a blockchain ledger that tracks food from grower/producer to processor, distributor, retailer, and restaurant or end customer would enable far more targeted recalls. Blockchain technology permits companies and government agencies to determine why and how the food spoiled or was otherwise tainted. Was the food maintained at the proper temperature during the entire trip? Did the food get shunted off the planned route for a time? Where? A blockchain ledger system creates a master database that can be readily queried to access that sort of information.
Consider container shipping, which has gotten plenty of press coverage in the time of COVID. A supplier fills a container with metals, decorative rock, toys, car parts, tools, or electronics. The container is then placed on a truck and taken to a port where it’s loaded onto a ship, perhaps sent to some intermediate port, and then finally reaches its destination port, where the container is unloaded, stacked, loaded onto another truck, perhaps taken to a train, and then transported to its final destination. There’s a lot of tracking involved in these operations conducted by multiple entities, and there’s plenty of opportunity for shrinkage, damage, spillage, or spoilage along the way.
Even though it’s still early days for blockchain, many name-brand vendors, including IBM, Oracle, and Huawei, are already offering blockchain services, or “blockchain as a service” (BaaS). However, there is at least one looming problem. As Koduri points out in his editorial:
“We are mindful that some blockchains require an enormous amount of computing power, which unfortunately translates to an immense amount of energy. Our customers are asking for scalable and sustainable solutions, which is why we are focusing our efforts on realizing the full potential of blockchain by developing the most energy-efficient computing technologies at scale.”
Now this is certainly a challenge that Intel knows how to attack. According to Koduri, Intel will be announcing a blockchain accelerator later this year that both speeds blockchain transactions and cuts the energy required to perform the associated calculations by three orders of magnitude – 1,000x. That’s a significant energy reduction by any reckoning.
However, I must offer a caveat to that sparkling prediction. Intel is comparing the power consumption of its yet-to-be-introduced blockchain accelerator chip with a GPU performing the core SHA-256 cryptographic algorithm. Now GPUs get their blinding speed through energy consumption and any ASIC running the SHA-256 algorithm will require far less energy when compared to a GPU. So Koruri hasn’t really told us much about the energy performance of the future Intel blockchain accelerator. Koduri writes, “You will be able to learn more about our circuit innovations at the International Solid State Circuit Conference (ISSCC) this month.” Perhaps we’ll know more, then.
This article was originally published on EE Times.
Steve Leibson is a Principal Analyst at Tirias Research. He has 45 years of industry-leading expertise in the development of advanced electronic systems using a wide range of technologies and has held managerial and technical positions at several leading electronics companies including HP, Cadnetix, Tensilica, Cadence Design Systems, Xilinx, and Intel. An industry expert and thought leader since 1985, Steve has been writing about electronic development in several leading industry publications including EDN Magazine and Microprocessor Report. He served as the founding editor for Wind River’s Embedded Developer’s Journal. He has also published several books and book chapters covering many electronics topics including the use of processor IP for ASIC development and he has presented numerous technical seminars and webinars to technical audiences, spoken at major industry events worldwide, and has provided strategic consulting to many leading technology companies.