Posted on

Microsoft Is Slowly (But Surely) Connecting Blockchain to Main Products

Three years ago, Microsoft Azure was the first to bring blockchain to the cloud. Now it’s connecting the technology to just about everything else.

The software giant has quietly been building bridges between its blockchain services and other, widely used infrastructure and platforms, such as Office 365 Outlook, SharePoint Online, Salesforce, Dynamics 365 CRM Online, SAP, and even Twitter, according to Matt Kerner, the general manager of Microsoft Azure. The idea is to allow Microsoft customers to port their data from these platforms into the cloud, and from there onto a blockchain.

Why? In addition to the usually touted blockchain efficiencies, one of the less-discussed benefits of distributed ledger technology (DLT) in a cloud environment like Azure, according to Microsoft, is that it amasses data from multiple companies in a standardized format at scale. The potential to mine data for all sorts of insights then becomes limitless, the company reckons.

Hence, the company is integrating tools such as Microsoft Flow and Logic Apps – which offer hundreds of connectors to thousands of applications – into Azure Blockchain Workbench, a service it launched in May to make the creation of blockchain apps easier (Workbench currently has ethereum Proof of Authority configured as the consensus protocol).

It’s all a part of the evolution of Big Data, Kerner explained. Prior to blockchain, he pointed out, cloud computing enabled departments within the same company to break out of their data silos and collaborate on heterogeneous data sets, increasing smarts through machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI).  

“Blockchain empowers the next step – enabling a single, authentic data set shared across counterparties. This is already improving the way transactions happen,” Kerner told CoinDesk, adding, “We believe the same will be true with data analytics.”

Stepping back, many would argue that data is now the most valuable naturally occurring resource on the planet. As the race to prove the best data analytics intensifies, firms are springing up whose sole purpose is to structure and format data to run AI algorithms on.  

But with enterprise blockchain, you get the structured and formatted data part thrown in for free, as Kerner said many Azure customers were discovering.

“What blockchain is doing is creating a multi-party business process that is moving out of email, phone calls, spreadsheets and into a single system with a single view on the data that all of the participants can rely upon and trust,” he said.

Looking ahead, Kerner said bringing vast amounts of unstructured and siloed data into a context where it could be leveraged and even shared would drive exponential change. He said:

“Even the fiercest of competitors can onboard and mutually derive benefit from that system and find new revenue streams.”

Taking on IBM

A good example of Azure connecting and balancing components in a large and complex production environment is Insurwave, which simplifies maritime insurance for shipping hauls carried by Maersk.

The platform was built using R3’s Corda platform with help from EY and Guardtime and is now in commercial production with insurers such as Willis Towers Watson, XL Catlin, and MS Amlin.

Insurwave, which tracks cargos and adjusts insurance premiums in real time, collates all sorts of data, everything from internet of things (IoT) sensors monitoring temperature, to whether the ship is going to hit a storm, or enter a war zone or an area heavily populated with pirates. Once this data is shared on the blockchain, Power BI, a Microsoft business analytics tool, can be used to gain insights about shipping hauls, Kerner said.

Further, Ricardo Correia, a managing director and head of partner management at R3, said its relationship with Microsoft is a good deal more than Azure being Corda’s default preferred cloud.

In addition to a one-click Corda capability, Correia pointed to integrating Corda into modules within the Azure marketplace.

“This enables Corda to plug into a number of different capabilities including Azure SQL, active directory for identity access management and key vault for key management,” he said.

Some of this is already in place because of Insurwave, with deeper integration also happening in a number of use cases. Notable ones include the webJet blockchain, which aims to reconcile hotels and other travel arrangements on a single ledger, and was cited by R3’s CTO Richard Brown as an example of Corda extending beyond mainstream finance.

Widening the lens, the ability to track items in real time and share things like IoT data using a blockchain has made global trade and supply chain a leading light in terms of domains to chase. From a strategic point of view, Insurwave challenges IBM’s bid for global trade dominance, which also has Maersk in the position of flagship, so to speak.

IBM has openly stated that this was its No. 1 target. However, Correia said Microsoft is also making its mark in supply chain – perhaps with a little less fanfare. “It’s in their interest given they too have very large supply chains with a number of their product offerings,” he said.

In terms of offering blockchain as a service, IBM has championed Hyperledger Composer for the past couple of years. However, there may be some question marks over the design of Composer, at least from an IBM perspective.  

Azure’s Kerner was tactfully equivocal about Microsoft’s enterprise blockchain rivals, adding that everything is built with an eye towards enabling a consortium that’s not exclusively on Azure.

“It’s got to be open. Any meaningful consortium is going to have members who have different choices that they have made around their cloud provider and who they choose to work with,” he said.

Microsoft image via Shutterstock.

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Posted on

All 'Big Four' Auditors to Trial Blockchain Platform for Financial Reporting

The world’s four biggest auditing firms – Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC – are joining a group of 20 banks in Taiwan to trial a blockchain service for auditing public companies’ interim financial reports.

According to a local news report on Thursday, the blockchain trial will initially allow the auditing firms to conduct so-called external confirmation – the process of obtaining and evaluating audit evidence – for a group of selected companies that are publicly traded on the island.

Traditionally, external confirmation is conducted manually by auditing firms to verify the authenticity of public companies’ financial transactions with third parties.

Developed by Taiwan’s Financial Information Service Co. (FISC) together with the 20 banks, the new platform moves the public firms’ transaction data onto a blockchain, where the banks participate as validators.

The goal is to allow auditing firms to view the transactions through a traceable and tamper-proof chain of data in distributed manner, streamlining and automating the confirmation process. FISC expects the new technology to reduce the confirmation time from typically “half a month” to “within a day.”

Initially founded by the island’s Ministry of Finance as its information technology arm, FISC was later incorporated as a company with both private and public capital.

The firm announced its move into blockchain in January 2017, together with the 20 major banks, as part of a wider effort to revamp financial technologies in Taiwan. The firm said in the report that, following the trial, it expects to roll out the auditing service to the 1,400 public companies listed on the island next year.

Receipts image via Shutterstock

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Posted on

CFO Boost? EY Predicts Blockchain Could Change C-Suite Role

“Big four” professional services firm Ernst & Young (EY) suggests that blockchain technology could transform the firm’s finance operations and redefine the role of chief financial officer (CFO) in a report published last week.

“Blockchain could revolutionize the way finance function operates,” the report reads. “It will arm the CFO with tools and capabilities to allow him or her to become a key business partner in the strategic planning process while running a very efficient and trustworthy operation.”

The report identifies CFO-related blockchain uses cases, noting that the technology can help executives meet objectives such as “getting your house in order,” business development and communication with the external marketplace.

More specifically, the report suggests the implementation of a blockchain-based auditing system could fundamentally alter the “scope and approach of an audit opinion” from its existing focus on evaluating transactions to “confirming the validity of digital representation of physical assets and codification of contracts.”

Likewise, EY claims the technology could decentralize organization structures, creating network systems which would provide better visibility and integration across an organization.

The report also argues that the transparency provided by blockchain technology could have an impact outside the organization too, allowing competing firms to have access to each other’s information, facilitating a more “collaborative and multi-enterprise environment.”

However, the authors caution that blockchain is still a nascent technology and, as such, its potential is not fully understood. Similarly, the report reads, “organizations should make sure they are not comparing the theory of blockchain with the practical nature of technology implementations.”

There are also obstacles to adopting blockchain-based systems, the authors say, explaining:

“That is, rolling out a blockchain across all functions with seamless integration would certainly solve a lot of problems, but many of our clients struggle to implement enterprise-wide data warehouses (which would do much of what we say blockchain technology can do), let alone a distributed database or network with all the associated maintenance difficulties.”

A paucity of knowledge about blockchain tech is also likely to encumber its adoption, EY said.

EY image via Shutterstock

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Posted on

Swiss Telecom Giant Launches New Blockchain Business

A major state-owned telecommunications provider in Switzerland has created a new business entity centered around blockchain

Swisscom, according to new reports, has established “Swisscom Blockchain AG” to focus on a range of services around the tech. These include enterprise-facing solutions as well as support for companies looking to launch initial coin offerings (ICOs).

The move comes months after the telecom joined the Hyperledger blockchain project. Swisscom is also a member of a Switzerland-based blockchain consortium that also includes exchange operator SIX and Zürcher Kantonalbank, the country’s fourth-largest bank. In January, that group unveiled an ethereum-based trading tool for over-the-counter exchanges.

It’s a notable development from an established firm that, from the outset of its formal entry into Hyperledger, has struck an optimistic tone on the tech.

“We want to provide support as a catalyst with expertise, experience and implementation skills,” Swisscom’s Johannes Höhener said in December.

The firm is being led by Daniel Haudenschild who, according to LinkedIn was previously a partner at advisory firm EY Switzerland. A report from local publication Inside Channels indicates that other staffers from EY have joined the venture, and that Swisscom Blockchain is eyeing a team as a big as 20 people by the end of 2017.

Image Credit: Arsenie Krasnevsky / Shutterstock.com

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is an independent media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. Have breaking news or a story tip to send to our journalists? Contact us at [email protected].

Posted on

Shipping Giant Maersk to Deploy Blockchain Maritime Insurance Solution

A joint venture between shipping giant Maersk, Microsoft, accounting firm EY and blockchain firm Guardtime aims to apply blockchain technology in the field of marine insurance.

Built using Azure – Microsoft’s cloud-based platform that recently revealed a new blockchain framework – the new effort will see the creation of a shared database that logs information about shipments, as well as potential risks, in order to help ships comply with insurance regulations. The database would also insure that this information is transparent across what is a complex network of variables.

Notably, the project has already been trialled, and Maersk plans to use it in real-world applications, along with insurers MS Amlin and XL Catlin, according to Reuters.

EY told CNBC that securing marine insurance data with blockchain was necessary due to the “complete inefficiency” of the industry.

Mark Russinovish, chief technology officer at Microsoft Azure, explained further: 

“Marine insurance is a prime example of a complex business process that can be optimized with blockchain.”

Reuters reported that the platform is already built and is planned for deployment in January.

This isn’t Maersk’s first exploration of blockchain tech. The shipping firm conducted its first blockchain-based cargo-tracking trial in partnership with IBM back in May. IBM has also signed up with a major port operator in Singapore to work with a regional shipping firm to test a new blockchain-based supply chain network.

Container ship image via Shutterstock

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is an independent media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. Have breaking news or a story tip to send to our journalists? Contact us at [email protected].