Blockchain Has No Place in Network Management

M. Fratto

Summary Bullets:

  • Blockchain may have many use cases, but there is little value in networking and network management.
  • Multivendor interoperability will remain a problem unless there are standards and the backing of networking vendors.

I may come to regret that headline, but for the moment, I stand by it. The financial world is simply breathless over cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Not only have cryptocurrencies skyrocketed to meteoric heights; there have also been numerous reports that simply adding ‘blockchain’ to a company name can boost the company’s value, which demonstrates the buzz has reached peak ridiculousness. In the tech world, a number of commentators, bloggers, and vendors are ‘blockchain signaling’ in an effort to be viewed as in touch with a hot, current trend. This is true even in networking, where blockchain proponents position it for authenticated management, multivendor management, and configuration compliance.

Let me burst that bubble with a slap of cold, hard reality. Blockchain provides little benefit to auditing network management that is better than existing alternatives. Furthermore, I’d suggest that blockchain is an unproven technology in enterprise IT.

The blockchain is a distributed ledger that stores transactional information with a high degree of integrity and non-repudiation. With cryptocurrencies, we want to know that money was transferred between parties and that neither the payer nor payee can later claim that the transaction did not take place. The proof is in the blockchain.

Part of the benefit of blockchain is to provide trust in an untrustworthy environment. What is it about your management environment that isn’t trustworthy? If enterprise IT doesn’t trust the integrity of its management systems, they have much bigger problems. But, what about cases where a business partner, customer, or regulatory body wants to assure the integrity of an enterprise IT department? Is blockchain useful for auditing management actions? Management auditing – showing who made changes, the exact nature of the changes, when the changes were made, and from where – is really only relevant to enterprises that have some requirement to demonstrate IT is following a set of prescribed processes such as industry, contractual, or government regulations. Blockchain technology could fulfill all of those requirements, but it is a complicated, untested, and unproven technology.

Additionally, blockchain is more of an architecture that is implemented using a variety of protocols, programming libraries, data formats, and consensus algorithms, and there is no clear standardization for blockchain. There are industry groups like the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger that have a number of open source software projects underway. Industry agreement on an open source software may be sufficient to become an industry standard, but I think that is unlikely because competing networking vendors really don’t want to interoperate in a meaningful way. The IETF and IEEE are rife with standards that are never adopted. Rather, a vendor commits to a technology path and wants its partners to follow along. Vendors with the most market share can dictate what its technology partners do, but even then, interoperation is usually shallow and brittle. The lack of standards means interoperation is far less deep than it could be or, arguably, should be.

Blockchain potentially enables a number of new types of business – I don’t think we’ve seen those new businesses to date – but there are also use cases where it makes little sense. Network management is one of those senseless use cases.

What do you think?

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