Blockchain is one of the hottest topics in the IT world today—and that creates a challenge for DevOps professionals. Here’s why, and what DevOps engineers can do to remain relevant.
Blockchain, Fat Protocols and a New Generation of Applications
To understand why blockchain threatens to decrease the role played by DevOps engineers in software platforms, you have to understand the difference between blockchain-based applications and traditional applications.
That difference was summed up most famously in an article by Joel Monegro about “fat protocols.” Monegro convincingly argued that prior to the introduction of blockchain technology, most software stacks were composed of “thin protocols” and “fat applications.”
What he meant was that in most traditional web applications, the majority of the value and functionality lies in the application itself, rather than in the protocols on which it runs.
In other words, if you write a PHP application, most of the time that you invest and the value you create center around the application code. The protocols that allow the application to work, such as HTTP, are relatively simple and uninteresting.
In blockchain-based applications, by contrast, the magic happens chiefly at the level of the protocol. The main job of these applications is simply to access that protocol. As a result, the applications themselves are relatively unimportant.
How It Changes DevOps
What this means for DevOps is that, if blockchain becomes as central to the software platforms of the future as its proponents hope, application code will become much less important than it is today.
By extension, the people who write and manage that code—DevOps engineers—will have less of a role to play in software deployment.
If you take a look at how most existing blockchain platforms operate, it’s easy enough to see how this trend plays out. The amount of effort required to write and maintain a basic “smart contract” application that runs on the Ethereum blockchain, for example, is pretty minimal. You don’t exactly have to be a DevOps genius to churn out some if-this-then-that code that interacts with Ethereum.
The same is true of an application that writes data to the Bitcoin blockchain to record a real estate transaction, for instance, or one that timestamps a document to a blockchain to create a record of the document’s existence.
In these use cases—as with almost all use cases associated with the blockchain—the role played by DevOps engineers is relatively small, because there is not much code to write or manage to deliver the platform’s core functionality.
Yet, if the blockchain revolution does come to pass, it won’t necessarily be bad news for DevOps experts.
Even though the core application code required to interact is minimal, crafting platforms that are secure and provide a solid user experience takes more work. This is where DevOps engineers can help.
One of the most glaring problems with many existing blockchain platforms is that their interfaces tend to be difficult to use. Related software security problems are also well-known.
In addition, some platforms have performance and scalability problems. Bitcoin advocates like to talk about how digital currency will make transactions much smoother, but the reality is that it can take hours to confirm a Bitcoin transaction. That’s a big problem if you want to buy and sell things with Bitcoin.
Arguably, these issues originate in part from the fact that many of the people currently designing blockchain platforms are good at recognizing how decentralized, distributed databases can drive innovation, but less adept at writing, maintaining and scaling software and the databases that power it. They are not, in other words, DevOps people.
By helping to build out blockchain applications so that they are actually usable, secure, efficient and scalable, DevOps professionals can ensure themselves a role to play in the platforms of the future. At the same time, they’ll help the technology transition from its current state of hype into something that can be used to solve everyday problems.