The blockchain revolution continues! If you’re exploring distributed ledger technology for business use and want to build a business blockchain for demos, pilots, or pre-production staging, this guide is for you. We’ll introduce you to several ways to get get started now, including the next generation IBM Blockchain Platform.

This guide shows you how to spin up a blockchain network based on the latest open source Hyperledger Fabric framework using the next generation platform, or building it manually component by component. But let’s first review key concepts around developing a business blockchain network.

Business blockchain concepts

What is a business blockchain network?

A business blockchain network is a decentralized network that uses distributed ledger technology (DLT) for the efficient and secure transfer of business assets between member organizations in the network. Assets can be physical or digital, such as vehicles, diamonds, fresh produce, or insurance records. A shared, distributed ledger records an immutable history of all asset transactions between participants in the network, and catalogs the current state (world state) of those assets. The business rules that govern transactions are agreed upon by members and encapsulated in smart contracts.

Instead of relying on a central authority or trusted intermediary, such as a bank or brokerage firm, to validate transactions, members of a blockchain network use a consensus mechanism to improve transaction processing speed, transparency, and accountability across the network. For additional confidentiality, members join one or more channels that allow for data isolation; a channel-specific ledger is shared by the authenticated peers in that channel.

A blockchain network for business is collectively owned and operated by a group of identifiable and verifiable institutions, such as businesses, universities, or hospitals. In such a permissioned network, the participants are known to each other, and transactions are processed much faster than in a non-permissioned, public network like the Bitcoin network. In the Bitcoin network, members are anonymous, forcing the reliance on “proof-of-work” and other types of consensus mechanisms that require time-consuming computations to confirm identities and validate transactions.

Need more background?

The open source engine of business blockchains: Hyperledger Fabric

To meet modern business demands, IBM has joined with other companies to collaboratively develop an open source, production-ready, business blockchain framework, called Hyperledger Fabric™, one of the Hyperledger® projects hosted by The Linux Foundation®. Hyperledger Fabric supports distributed ledger solutions on permissioned networks for a wide range of industries. Its modular architecture maximizes the confidentiality, resilience, and flexibility of blockchain solutions. 159 engineers from 27 organizations contributed to Hyperledger Fabric v1.0. This signified the first production-ready business blockchain framework. In January of 2019, Hyperledger Fabric announced the release of the first Long Term Supported (LTS) project with v1.4.

Dive deeper:

IBM’s enterprise-ready platform: The IBM Blockchain Platform

The IBM Blockchain Platform is a blockchain software-as-a-service offering on the IBM Cloud. It’s the only fully integrated, enterprise-ready blockchain platform that’s designed to simplify the development, governance, and operation of a decentralized, multi-institution, multi-cloud business network. The IBM Blockchain Platform accelerates collaboration in this decentralized world by leveraging open source technology from the Hyperledger Fabric framework.

The IBM Blockchain Platform makes it fast and easy for network members to start developing and quickly move to a collaborative environment with the performance, privacy, and security for even the most demanding use cases and regulated industries.

Start small and grow

The IBM Blockchain Platform allows you to deploy only what you need and dynamically add to your environment; you can alter the resources (CPU/Memory/Storage) on the individual nodes, or you can add more nodes in and of themselves. You can migrate from proof-of-concept to pilot to production on a secure, high-performance, and fully scalable network that you can’t outgrow. The newest options give you the flexibility to bring your own infrastructure and deploy anywhere. The platform is designed to be an easy and economical on-ramp to developing and testing pre-production applications through growing production ecosystems.

Discover the IBM Blockchain Platform:

What’s in the next-generation platform

The easiest and most economical way for developers to get started with blockchain development is the IBM Blockchain Platform with IBM Kubernetes Service Free Tier. This development and testing environment is ideal for developers who are exploring blockchain technology or want to build a blockchain network for demos, pilots, or pre-production staging.

Any developer — whether enterprise, start-up, academic, novice, or experienced — can deploy code to a full-function, multi-organization blockchain network with the IBM Blockchain Platform.

With the next-generation platform, you get:

Build

Operate and govern

  • Unlimited use cases, channels, and configurations in a single instance enable flexibile network configurations
  • Identities, ledgers, and smart contracts allow for better control and ownership
  • Current Hyperledger Fabric capabilities offer the benefits of more up-to-date technology

Grow

  • Ability to connect a single peer to multiple ordering services enables flexible network configurations
  • Infrastructure via IBM Kubernetes Service allows for better control and ownership
  • Flexible pricing allows you to start small and pay as you grow for what you use with no up-front investment

Start now! Kick-start your blockchain network using the IBM Kubernetes Service Free Tier

The easiest, most economical way to learn your way around a real business blockchain and start developing blockchain skills and applications now is to sign up for the IBM Blockchain Platform on the IBM Kubernetes Service (IKS) Free Tier.

Deploy a sample business network

Step-by-step, learn how to deploy a sample network to the IKS Free Tier. Then you can start developing, demoing, and staging your blockchain applications on a simulated multi-organization network.

  1. Sign up for an IBM Cloud Account.
  2. Head to the Kubernetes Service in the IBM Cloud and sign up to create the IKS Free Tier and deploy.
  3. Navigate back to the Blockchain Platform and click to launch your blockchain console into your IKS Free Tier cluster. You can select the cluster via the navigation.
  4. When you see the launch button, you can enter the blockchain console where you will see a quick-start tutorial, along with the different nodes that you can deploy.
  5. If you select the quick start, you’ll be guided through a series of easy steps to “Build a network,” “Join a network,” or “Deploy a smart contract on the network.”

For complete details, see the IBM Blockchain Platform documentation. Here’s a preview of what you’ll be guided to do:

  • Deploy a certificate authority, ordering service node, or peers.
  • Create identities and channels.
  • Model your business network by defining the asset classes, participant classes, transaction classes, event classes, and access control rules.
  • Write a smart contract, install a smart contract, instantiate a smart contract, and send a transaction using your client application.

What’s not in the Free Tier?

The Free Tier is optimized to give you a view into the operational tooling, and to help you do quick development and testing. It differs from the Standard plans in several ways:

  • It will be automatically removed after one month, and there is no way to migrate to a Standard tier — so don’t plan on the data remaining beyond this one-month threshold as the entire instance will disappear.
  • It shoud not be used for stress testing. This is a free resource and IBM is incurring all of the costs, so to make this available at no cost IBM has to limit the resources allocated to these instances.
  • There is no maintenance applied to these deployments. If a new version of Hyperledger Fabric becomes available, IBM will not upgrade the Free Tier instances to this new level; you will need to delete and restart the IBM Blockchain Platform instance anew.

What’s beyond the Free Tier?

When you’re ready to really get going, grow your network, and deploy your network definition, smart contract, and applications to a production environment with added layers of hardened security and premium support, you’ll want the IBM Kubernetes Standard Plan.

With a Standard plan, you get the ability to add more IBM Blockchain Platform nodes, more resources (compute and storage), plus a crash-tolerant, production-level infrastructure that runs in a secure-cloud, Kubernetes-based portable environment. This includes runtime/data isolation, high availability for the ordering service and certificate authority, and the ability to use multiple zones for disaster recovery.

Why not just use open source technologies directly on your own computer?

A locally deployed blockchain based on the Hyperledger Fabric framework can be a terrific simulation. But without access to other member organizations, you can’t experience or test the scalability and power of a multi-organization network. In addition, using the open source technologies locally requires a bit more patience and dexterity with command-line coding.

Conversely, with the IBM Blockchain Platform, you get a scalable, reliable, fully integrated set of operational and governance tools that guide you through network creation, deployment, monitoring, and governance with simple clicks and easy instructions. The code and skills you develop are easily transferable to production environments, so when you’re ready to move to a full-scale network in production you will have the exact same experience.

Looking to quickly develop and/or test a smart contract?

The easiest, most economical way to learn more about developing smart contracts for Hyperledger Fabric is to get the free IBM Blockchain Platform VS Code extension. There are several built-in samples that can help you get started, including commercial paper and FabCar. Once you install the extension, you can create your first smart contract by walking through this tutorial.

With the VS Code extension, you can quickly develop, package, and deploy your smart contracts with easy management of multiple workspaces. Plus, the extension has a built-in local Hyperledger Fabric installation to test your smart contract quickly. In addition, you can easily import connection profiles to remote networks, which enables you to deploy your packaged smart contracts to any network in which you participate.

Get help and support

There are lots of ways to get support and answers to your questions.

  1. For general blockchain questions:
    Search dW Answers. Browse questions that have already been asked, or submit a new question (include the keyword blockchain).

  2. For help with the IBM Blockchain Platform:
    The Support section in the UI provides many resources for self-help as well as release notes. For software defects or a problem that eludes the given resources, you’ll find instructions to submit a support case in the IBM Cloud Service Portal. When you submit a support case, you get an email response within minutes.

  3. For specific Hyperledger Fabric implementation questions:
    The Hyperledger Rocket.Chat channels and Stack Overflow are your best bets.

Next steps

We’ll conclude with five great ways to build your blockchain skills:

  • Take the next steps in your blockchain learning journey — follow along with the IBM Developer Blockchain learning path.
  • Stay in the know with the Blockchain Newsletter from developerWorks. Check out some recent issues and subscribe.

  • Stop by the Blockchain content hub on IBM Developer. It’s your source for tools and tutorials, along with code and community support, for developing and deploying blockchain solutions for business.

  • Watch the four-part IBM Blockchain Platform Console Video Series, which shows you in detail how to set up a business network on the IBM Blockchain Platform.

  • Check out the many blockchain code patterns on IBM Developer, which provide roadmaps for solving complex problems, and include overviews, architecture diagrams, process flows, repo pointers, and additional reading.