Blockchain + Mainframe = The Enterprise’s Next Security Revolution?

Experts are working to blend cutting-edge blockchain tech with mainframes, which are still going strong after all these decades.

Mention the term “blockchain” to most people and chances are that bitcoins will come to mind—that is if anything comes to mind at all.

That’s not surprising—blockchain technology is currently tracking nearly $94 billion worth of the cryptocurrency. But new applications for blockchain are popping up every day, and experts consider one of its most unexpected potential uses to be in boosting the security of enterprise mainframes.

Where Blockchain Fits Into Mainframes

A blockchain, at its core, is a public ledger that tracks digital transactions across a network of computers. Once a transaction is logged and the user’s ID is verified, the ledger creates a permanent and unalterable “block” of data. No central authority is in charge of the blockchain and no single person or party can tamper with the record, making it more secure than other transaction forms.

So, how could this cutting-edge technology bolster the security of legacy systems?

The fusion of the two is still in the proof-of-concept phase (as engineers work to ensure that the new technology doesn’t harm the already-stable mainframe systems). Even though it’s early days, teams working on the tech say they’re encouraged by the progress they’ve made.

“I think the integration of legacy technology with something like blockchain is not only interesting from a technology point of view, it’s a logical step,” says Dr. Maria Velez-Rojas, lead research scientist and inventor at CA Technologies.

Cracking Down on Data Tampering

“A lot of the characteristics of blockchain can actually benefit from what’s happening in the market,” Velez-Rojas says.

Arguably the most important of those is security. Blending the reliability and scalability of the legacy system with blockchain could greatly decrease the odds of anyone illicitly accessing data stored in a mainframe.

“Basically, you cannot hack transactions,” says Velez-Rojas. “You can secure the identity of those involved in transactions. That alone is encouraging. Identity management is one aspect that is really picking up in terms of security when it comes to blockchain.”

Beyond that, she adds, blockchains allow users to encrypt data, which would speed up data processing on mainframes.

Bringing Mainframes Into the 21st Century

Mainframes might seem like relics of a bygone era to some, but they’re still very prevalent in today’s society. They’re used widely in healthcare, since they’re scalable and secure and they meet federal compliance restrictions. Other users include power companies of all kinds, auto and plane manufacturers and ticket retailers.

And the technology of mainframes is still evolving. Recently, IBM introduced z14, a powerful new system that can process 2.5 billion transactions per day and offers full encryption.

Blockchain, says Petr Vlasek, a software architect at CA, can improve mainframe security on a number of levels, including data provenance, data integrity, confidentiality, identity and access management, governance, risk and compliance. In the realm of data provenance, for instance, blockchain can incorporate traceability into enterprise security and alert companies to attempted intrusions, in real time.

That would be especially useful for government services (such as those overseeing land registry, titles, licenses and property ownership) and real estate, where owners could have a complete record of earlier insurance claims on the houses they’re buying or of improvements requiring the proper city or state clearances.

Even the entertainment industry is exploring the technology as a means to cut losses resulting from piracy. IBM’s Blockchain Labs is creating a blockchain delivery system for music and movies, but it will be five to ten years before those systems start to emerge publicly, say the teams working on them.

Early Projects, Early Promise

While there’s lots of momentum on the technology side, enterprise adoption of blockchain technology has been tentative so far. Still, Velez-Rojas says that she’s seeing increased interest from enterprise companies as the proof-of-concept tests show encouraging results.

Perhaps the best way to think about blockchain’s potential, says Petr Vlasek, is to compare it to where the internet was in the early 1990s. It’s a technology that's still finding its direction, but once it does, it could completely shift the paradigm.

“[Think about] how the internet changed business and our daily behaviors,” he says. “Blockchain might be the next step. It is not easy to articulate how this change will look—the current blockchain applications are just the beginning—but there's a huge potential waiting to be uncovered.”

Chris Morris
By Chris Morris | November 8, 2017

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