A casual exploration of articles on the potential of blockchain technology to meet the challenges of securing Internet of Things networks would suggest enormous confidence in its possibilities. Headlines such as “Why blockchain and IoT are best friends”, “How Blockchain Could Revolutionize The Internet Of Things”, abound. IDC in its 2018 IoT Predictions forecast that, by 2020, some 10 percent of pilot and production blockchain ledgers would be used for IoT.
Forrester Research however is less enthusiastic. Its TechRadar report Internet of Things Security, 2017 examines the use cases, business value, and outlook for what Forrester judges to be the 13 most relevant and important technologies for delivering IoT security. It puts these into three groupings: those that it assesses will have significant success, moderate success and minimal success. In Forrester’s estimation blockchain will achieve only minimal success, and is the only one of the 13 technologies examined to be ranked so low.
As with some other technologies, Forrester raises concerns about the challenges of implementing blockchain in IoT devices with limited processing power. IoT blockchain, says Forrester, “is still very early stage and needs more maturity and IoT-specific use cases for it to transition into the next phase, which will not happen for another three to five years.”
Gartner also is not very bullish about blockchain for IoT security. Its 2017 Hype Cycle for the Internet of Things makes no mention of blockchain (but puts IoT security overall as having not yet reached the peak of inflated expectations and five to 10 years from achieving the plateau of productivity).
Blockchain gets a ranking in Gartner’s 2017 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, and is rated only marginally more mature than IoT security: it is heading down into the trough of disillusionment and five to ten years from maturity. However there are signs of rapidly gathering momentum that belie these rather downbeat assessments and support the more bullish claims made for blockchain’s application to IoT security.
Trusted IoT Alliance
The Trusted IoT Alliance was launched in September 2017 with the specific aim “to bring companies together to develop and set the standard for an open source blockchain protocol to support IoT technology in major industries worldwide.” It now has more than 30 members working towards achieving its stated goal: “the creation of a trusted IoT ecosystem that links cryptographic and registrant identities, along with metadata, to give objects the equivalent of digital, transferable ‘birth certificates’ that can be inventoried and managed across blockchain networks.” The alliance says it will “support Hyperledger, Bitcoin and Ethereum-family based blockchain implementations.”
Ethereum is an open source project promoted by the Ethereum Foundation. It is far less well known than Bitcoin but has applications well beyond cryptocurrencies. The Enterprise Ethereum Alliance was formed in February 2017. It aims to “leverage this groundbreaking technology to address specific industry use cases,” and now claims to be the world’s largest open-source blockchain initiative.
Startups are also emerging to exploit the potential of blockchain in IoT security. Xage, claiming to be “the first and only blockchain-protected security platform for the Industrial Internet of Things,” emerged in Palo Alto in December 2017 after 18 months in stealth mode. Xage says it “distributes authentication and private data across the network of devices, creating a tamper-proof ‘fabric’ for communication, authentication and trust that ensures security at scale.”
Xage’s focus is very much on the industrial Internet, which as it notes, will rely heavily on a legacy of operational technology using a variety of devices and protocols that are challenging to secure as these once isolated industrial systems become integrated with mainstream IT and exposed to the global Internet.
Dell, whose OEM division has a strong focus on operational technology and industrial IoT applications, is already exploiting its potential: Xage will deliver its security services on Dell IoT gateways and the Dell EdgeX platform for the energy-production industry.
Most of the bullish predictions for the rollout of blockchain in IoT security note that blockchain seems ideal for the role: its distributed nature makes it highly scalable and highly secure. Given the forecasted number of devices in Industrial IoT, the reliance on centralized certification authorities for device authentication creates bottlenecks and other challenges.
Given the rapid growth of IoT and the fact that security challenges are often cited as one of the biggest obstacles for adoption, it seems likely that the promises of blockchain will motivate great effort to overcoming the barriers to its use for securing IoT, sooner rather than later.