Decentralized Applications

If you've found Butane, then you've almost certainly heard of a β€œDApp” – or Decentralized Application.

So what is it, and what makes it different from any old Web application?

  • More than one separately administered copy of the application runs

  • Application instances share some state in a common ledger, whether openly visible or masked for privacy

  • Some of the business logic affecting that shared state is agreed upon by multiple parties

  • Shared business logic execution is independently verified by multiple parties

  • No one party has control of the integrity of the ledger

  • No one party has control of the availability of the ledger

If most or all of those apply, you’ve got a DApp. ... otherwise, you probably just need a plain old centralized database.

New Transformative Solutions

Moving from the traditional Enterprise application and middleware stack owned by a single organization, to a shared solution with some amount of common agreed state (no matter how small, or obfuscated), is a revolutionary concept for Enterprise IT.

However, the core systems themselves do not go away. They remain the systems of record for each business. Independently chosen and operated by each participant in the network.

The big change from traditional enterprise applications, is that instead of using Web Services and Queued Messaging to provably request updates to the state of another enterprise's own core systems, you can agree and codify those state changes via shared logic executed on the chain.

The transformation comes by finding use cases that enrich the end user experience, speed to transaction resolution, cost of ownership, access to services, fairness, transparency and trust of the overall solution through the collaboration of multiple parties on a single shared ledger.

In some decentralized systems it is the shared state itself that is so valuable - access to a rich history of transaction data, visible and indexed collectively by the consortium (usually with the payload data itself held off-chain).

In other systems it is the the state transition logic, the Smart Contracts, that govern what agreement means and when it has been reached, in a shared store, which can accelerate business processes by orders of magnitude.

These concepts almost always tie back to ownership, and identity. Here, tokenization is the built-in construct of a Blockchain that pins whole or fractional ownership of something real or digital that exists off-chain, to an on-chain representation. You can extend tokens with custom smart contract logic and on-chain state. Then pin your on-chain state to rich off-chain data storage with a simple hash. In some cases value is then attributed to tokens, and tokens of different types can be swapped to designate change of ownership of the asset, with enforced rules.

Proofs, Keys and Identity

Signing a payload like a transaction, or any other cryptographic proof, allows you to state some data to another party with certainty that it came from you. The digital signature delivers invaluable non-repudiation, as at any point in the future the holder can irrefutably prove that you as the private key owner stated that data.

Sometimes proofs are stated openly, and written to the shared ledger for everyone in the business network to see.

Other times the proofs are masked so that only those holding other secrets are able to view them.

In all cases, the keys used to sign those proofs are sensitive. Whether used once from a never ending deterministic sequence of keys, like a hierarchically deterministic (HD) wallet, or bound to an organizational identity where the public key is shared in an on-chain registry, the lifecycle and management of keys is a significant consideration in any Blockchain based business network.

Putting the Right Data on the Shared Ledger

Maybe the most important thing to recognize when building a decentralized application, is that the chain is not intended to be treated as a traditional database.

  • Data written to the chain should be considered immutable

  • It is practically impossible to purge data from the ledger in a Blockchain, so any sensitive personal data or other data that might be subject to requirements to remove it at a later date is unsuitable for storage on-chain (without encryption enabling cryptographic deletion)

  • All data ever written remains available

  • The storage collects over time, so writing large amounts of data has a cumulative impact on storage requirements over time. For this reason storage of large payloads is not practical.

  • The transaction ledger is maintained via distributed consensus

  • With byzantine fault tolerant consensus algorithms, coordination and proofs that occur as blocks are mined are expensive, and it takes significantly longer than the transaction commit times of a locally replicated SQL or no-SQL database.

  • Finality is dependent on consensus

  • Different consensus algorithms have different approaches to when transaction state becomes immutable. Unlike the eventual consistency and optimistic concurrency locking of traditional databases, the time to finality can be long. For some consensus algorithms, forks in the chain can exist for significant periods of time before sufficient agreement exists in the network for the transaction order to be considered permanent.

So DApp design is about determining the right amount of data, often including proofs, to be captured in the shared ledger and to be controlled via Smart Contract logic. Then coordinating the updates to that data through rich user experiences, core-system integration within each participant of the business network, and off-chain communications between participants to exchange state and data.

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