The 3Ps of the blockchain: platforms, programs and protocols

There is a burgeoning landscape around the blockchain’s decentralized consensus protocol technologies.


Although it may be early to baptize new buzz lingo like “Blockchain as a Service” (BaaS) or “Blockchain as a Platform” (BaaP), there is a burgeoning landscape of various implementations and activity in and around the blockchain’s decentralized consensus protocol technologies.

I’ve already covered the blockchain’s sweet spot as a development platform in “Understanding the blockchain,” so it is no surprise that its landscape will be made up of platforms, protocols, and (smart) programs.

Breaking-up the bitcoin-blockchain paradigm

In a perfect world, we would have a single blockchain and a single cryptocurrency. But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards, whether it is technically feasible or not. Although wide-scale adoption and a critical mass of users aren’t there yet, the market is signaling for a diversification of choices, some based on the bitcoin currency and its blockchain protocol, and others not.

There are six various permutations that I’m seeing in this emerging landscape:

  1. Bitcoin currency + bitcoin blockchain: Bitcoin. Yes, that’s the only one there, as it’s the reference point.
  2. Bitcoin currency + non-bitcoin blockchain: Blockstream, Truthcoin. Side chains are used, and they are “pegged” the main bitcoin blockchain via various schemes.
  3. Non-bitcoin currency + bitcoin blockchain: Factom, Mastercoin, Counterparty, Namecoin. In this case, the bitcoin blockchain is used, but a native currency fuels the operations of that other platform.
  4. Non-bitcoin currency + non-bitcoin blockchain: Ethereum, BitShares, Truthcoin, Litecoin, PayCoin. This segment represents the ultimate in “bitcoin independence.”
  5. Non-blockchain consensus: Ripple, Stellar, NXT, Hyperledger, Tendermint, Pebble, Open Transactions. These platforms implement decentralized consensus and decentralized trust without a blockchain construct as its nucleus.
  6. Blockchain-neutral smart servicesEris Industries, PeerNova, Codius, SmartContract, SAE, Tezos, Tillit. This category will probably need to be divided further, as it is still developing, but it includes a mix of decentralized platforms and interesting smart contract services.

The lines between protocol and platform are sometimes distinct (e.g. Namecoin, as a protocol), and sometimes they are not (e.g. Ethereum, as a platform and protocol). Smart programs are arguably the next category of “apps” to live on the blockchain, aside from the multitude of cryptocurrency wallets and payments services that have dominated so far.

The following segmentation matrix shows what we see today, but there is no guarantee that the landscape will stay the same in the near future. Many players have a vision, but still don’t have users, let alone working beta versions or even testbeds. I don’t remember a time when white papers generated so much interest and excitement, way before products arrived.


Source: Image courtesy of William Mougayar

In search of the “perfect” solution?

Bitcoin is still the big kahuna, and it is interesting that its platform is both competing and cooperating with others. Bitcoin does have a market advantage, despite some of its shortcomings. Bitcoin still holds the majority of the mining and market value power when you look at the landscape from a cryptocurrency market capitalization point of view; we can’t ignore bitcoin’s existing infrastructure and critical mass of miners and users that have made its network defensible and relatively secure so far. And it’s too early to predict the impact that a diversification of blockchains will have on bitcoin’s own mining, and how alternative solutions will support their own platforms to minimum acceptable levels for secure and trustworthy operations. But you can’t ignore the astounding amount of innovation that is taking place “around” bitcoin proper, either.

There is no doubt that some of the projects listed may not succeed in the long term, but they are all contributing to advancing the state of research and practice into the emerging cryptocurrency computer science space.

For example, the SCIPR Lab is doing ground-breaking research in the area of cryptographic proof systems, with a goal to provide succinct integrity and privacy. Their work is to be lauded because “proof processes” are at the heart of the blockchain’s operations, and the advancement they will achieve will eventually benefit the whole market.

Of course there will be competition in this landscape. However, before we get to real competition, many of the players are still working on basic foundational aspects, such as speed, costs, scalability, privacy, and security of their blockchain services. These are table stakes in traditional software development, but they are not to be taken for granted (yet) in the blockchain/decentralized world. Decentralized consensus, decentralized trust, and distributed proof systems are some of the areas that are part of the next frontiers in software development.

Reality is, the blockchain is not a very efficient construct on its own, so we need to envelop it with a lot of peripheral innovation in order to make it viable. But the blockchain has a big dream, and it is making developers, researchers, scientists and visionaries very thirsty for solutions.

Just when you thought you understood the concept of the blockchain and its role, now you need to take a deeper dive and evaluate the various choices.

Beneath the joys and excitement of the blockchain’s promise lies the pains and agony of its implementation.

Image on article and category pages by BTC Keychain on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

We’ll be delving into more bitcoin and blockchain technology topics at our upcoming Bitcoin & the Blockchain Radar Summit January 27, 2015, in San Francisco. Visit our event website for more on the program and for registration information.

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  • I simply cannot put any faith at all into any of these that don’t rely on the bitcoin blockchain. It’s mining network, as Satoshi predicted, is the ultimate in safety. I dare say that if the UN put together a multinational attempt to take the bitcoin blockchain down using a bottomless budget and all of the world’s supercomputers, they’d fail. -Not so with any of these other solutions.

    Ask yourself this: In 5 years when a fortune 100 company decides it cannot hold out anymore and decides to move part of its’ core DB to a blockchain, what in the world could possibly convince them to use a less-secure chain than bitcoins?

    • Ross Nicoll

      If a major world government wanted to break Bitcoin, they’d go after the giant mining pools, not bother to 51% attack it.

      Also, why would a company try pushing its core DB into a blockchain? It’s a tool for distributed consensus; great for proving sequence of events, but it’s not a general data storage tool (although storage tools are being built that use similar technology).

      • What a waste of time it would be for a government to take over a mining pool… Any conceivable bad actions it used that pool for would easily be noticed by the miners and they’d all simply jump out in the next few minutes as the word goes out across the forums, reddit, and other popular miner hangouts.

        As for putting DB into a blockchain, remember it is a database that cannot ever be turned off, deleted, nor even edited, and every last person on earth with an internet connection can view it. Best yet, the data you place on it is indecipherable until you give a reference, so in effect you can put your most secret documents on it and just not leave anyone the ‘key’ to that stuff.

        It’s the perfect place to put every kind of contract, and any time you’d need to a timestamp for any reason it’s the best timestamp to have. Birth & marriage certificates, as well as real estate deeds, would all be ideally housed there, for instance.

        Finally, having documents there interact with Oracles can automate them to do new functions we can only speculate at now. Imagine writing a contract that says “If I die my wife gets the private key to bitcoin addresss X.” -You wouldn’t need a middleman or contract enforcer… That contract can execute itself with a simple oracle that notifies it of your death.

    • But other blockchains don’t have to be as dependent on mining as Bitcoin is today.

      • I don’t see a problem with mining dependency at all; I’m pretty happy with it in fact, because of the aforementioned security.

        I don’t know if this is your objection to mining or not, but I often hear argument against so much mining because of the “waste” of energy. This drives me nuts… How can creating such an impossibly useful, mega-secure thing be considered a waste??

        Even if you only compare the blockchain to the server farm, I’m sure it doesn’t use as much energy and all the while is more secure. But that’s really just for starters.

        Bitcoin wasn’t meant to merely replace paypal and some database hosting… It was created specifically to replace the entire planet’s financial system! Think of the size of that for a minute… The banking industry that bitcoin will replace easily uses orders of magnitude more than bitcoin on days when the banks are closed.

        Industries bitcoin will replace or greatly minimize:

        * Central banks (& government issuers) like the Fed and IMF
        * Multinational banks like Goldman Sachs, HSBC, BofA & Chase
        * Regional Banks like the one on the corner near your grocery store
        * Remittance services like Western Union
        * Money Security services like Brinks, Securitas, & Garda
        * Credit/Debit card networks like Visa/MC/Amex/Discover
        * Other web money transfer services like Paypal and Circle

        I really could go on and on here, since they circle out from each of those like ripples in a pond… For instance the security services industry needs multiple industries to support it like those who manufacture armor plating and offer specialized training… Same goes for all of these… It’s just too much to imagine. -Probably something like 10% of everything we spend energy to make, planet wide!

        Compared to the industries bitcoin will eventually replace, bitcoin mining is a godsend to be dependent on as far as energy goes.

        • Hi Luke, I’m not implying being against mining. I’m more of a centrist, but I’m wondering if we totally understand the scalability implications, should Bitcoin get wildly adopted. Currently, the # of transactions is minuscule compared to the potential, so I don’t think we know exactly what the mining/infrastructure requirements will be if transaction levels go up orders of magnitude higher.

          • # of transactions is an issue of course, but just one more to solve out of many. Larger blocksizes will help, but I think sidechains are what will really solve that problem to get to the billion transactions a daily it needs.

            The one thing I can’t see happening is the need finally getting here for more than 7 per second and the core devs just giving up, saying it can’t be done. There’s always something that can be done, and as long as the blockchain is the safest place to park your data, there isn’t any realistic way off that path.

  • NXT – blockchain based consensus