Blockchain Pumping New Life Into Old-School Companies Like IBM

Blockchain is getting bigger at Big Blue.

Demand for the technology, best known for supporting bitcoin, is growing so much that it will be one of the largest users of capacity next year at about 60 data centers that International Business Machines Corp. rents out to other companies around the globe. IBM was one of the first big companies to see blockchain’s promise, contributing code to an open-source effort and encouraging startups to try the technology on its cloud for free.

That a 106-year-old company like IBM is going all in on blockchain shows just how far the digital ledger has come since its early days underpinning bitcoin drug deals on the dark web. The market for blockchain-related products and services will reach $7.7 billion in 2022, up from $242 million last year, according to researcher Markets & Markets. 

That’s creating new opportunities for some of the old warships of the technology world, companies like IBM and Microsoft Corp. that are making the transition to cloud services. And products that had gone out of vogue, such as databases sold by Oracle Corp., are becoming sexy again.

“All of these things will get a new life because of blockchain,” said Jerry Cuomo, vice president of technology for IBM Blockchain. “Our sales team loves blockchain because a customer that is buying blockchain rarely walks out of the store with just blockchain. They walk out with multiple things in their cart.” 

Because multiple companies — such as all parties involved in a supply chain — can use the same blockchain, it’s spurring IBM to revise the way it compensates sales associates. In the past, sales reps got paid when their clients bought IBM technologies directly. Now they will also receive a commission when clients encourage other companies to join them on a blockchain network and use Big Blue’s systems and services, Cuomo said.

Bright Sector

The blockchain enables companies doing business with each other to record transactions securely. Its strength lies in its trustworthiness: It is difficult to reverse or change what’s been recorded. The blockchain can also hold many more documents and data than traditional database storage, allowing for more nuanced insights and analysis. It can also hold embedded contracts, such as a lease for a car, whose virtual key could be transferred to a bank in the event of a default.

“Blockchain is one of the bright sectors in technology,” said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. “Since blockchain infrastructure is fairly beefy, there will be a large pool of revenue associated with sales of equipment, software and related services for blockchain installations.”

In addition to hiring third parties for cloud use, companies will rely more on their own databases for storage, said Amit Zavery, senior vice president of Oracle Cloud Platform. 

“In traditional database systems, there is only one copy of the data for all parties to reference, but blockchain’s distributed nature means all of the peers now hold a copy of the data,” Avery said. “That will expand the data storage requirements on businesses, especially those in industries with typically high transaction rates.”

QuickTake: All about bitcoin, blockchain and their crypto world

In October, Oracle announced the formation of Oracle Blockchain Cloud Service, which helps customers extend existing applications like enterprise-resource management systems. A month earlier, rival SAP SE said clients in industries like manufacturing and supply chain were testing its cloud service. And on Nov. 20, Microsoft expanded its partnership with consortium R3 to make it easier for financial institutions to deploy blockchains in its Azure cloud.

Big Blue, meanwhile, has been one of key companies behind the Hyperledger consortium, a nonprofit open-source project that aims to create efficient standards for commercial use of blockchain technology. IBM also offers companies a free trial of blockchain in its cloud.

Wal-Mart, Visa

Almost six in 10 large corporations are considering using blockchain, according to a Juniper Research survey of 400 executives, managers and tech staff. The technology is increasingly being tested or used by companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Visa Inc. to streamline supply chain, speed up payments and store records.

Deployments of blockchain should bump up sales growth in cloud services, databases and servers by 35 percent, according to Susan Eustis, chief executive officer of WinterGreen Research. Within five years, blockchain technology will push more than 55 percent of large companies with more than 1,000 employees to use the cloud instead of their own data centers, up from 17 percent today, she said. 

IBM is selling more messaging systems to deliver transactions into the blockchain, web-interface products and API systems to easier communicate with the chain and web app environments, Cuomo said. Sales of databases could rise as well.

“We are seeing a lot of momentum and excitement in this space,” said Matthew Kerner, partner general manager for blockchain at Microsoft.

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