Amazon is in the blockchain business in a big way. Its Amazon Managed Blockchain is a fully managed service designed to help companies quickly set up blockchain networks of their own that are scalable and easy to create and manage. Originally announced at the company’s re:Invent event in late 2018, Amazon Managed Blockchain has been in preview for months. It’s now generally available, arriving first in northern Virginia before expanding to other regions over the course of the next year.
In a press release, Amazon told businesses that they “can quickly set up a blockchain network spanning multiple AWS accounts with a few clicks in the AWS Management Console,” doing away with what it describes as the typical cost and difficulty of creating a company network. AMB supports two frameworks — your business’ choice of Ethereum or Hyperledger Fabric. The latter is the fruit of the combined labors of IBM and the Linux Foundation — part of the Hyperledger Project, which in turn is part of IBM Blockchain, a performance-as-a-service offering. Notably, Ethereum isn’t actually supported yet, but that’s also scheduled for later in the year.
In an email interview, an Amazon representative did not explain why Ethereum isn’t yet available, and he didn’t clarify when it would be, other than to repeat the press release’s “later this year” line. He did, however, delineate the respective advantages of Hyperledger Fabric versus Ethereum.
“Hyperledger Fabric is well-suited for applications that require stringent privacy and permission controls with a known set of members,” he said, using the example of a financial application in which sensitive information is shared only with select banks. He contrasted that with Ethereum’s use for situations where transparency for all members is key and a blockchain network needs to be highly distributed. “[An example would be] a customer loyalty blockchain network that allows any retailer in the network to independently verify a user’s activity across all members to redeem benefits. Alternatively, Ethereum can also be used for joining a public Ethereum blockchain network,” he said.
“Customers simply choose their preferred framework, […] add network members, and configure the member nodes that process transaction requests. Amazon Managed Blockchain takes care of the rest, creating a blockchain network that can span multiple AWS accounts and configuring the software, security, and network settings,” Amazon’s press release reads.
The company said that AMB supports thousands of applications running millions of transactions. Amazon also provides its AMB customers with the Amazon Quantum Ledger Database (QLDB) for when companies want to perform additional analysis.
Blockchain is often erroneously conflated with cryptocurrency. The association between the two is indeed close, but that’s because blockchain is the technology that allows crypto to function. On stage at the initial re:Invent announcement, an Amazon spokesperson said that before the company embarked on its AMB journey, Amazon had more closely examined what sort of business use cases businesses wanted from the technology. Amazon Managed Blockchain’s services and feature set is what emerged from those efforts.
An inherent tension seems to exist between the decentralized promise of blockchain and the — for lack of a better term — centralized nature of Amazon’s fully managed service. But an Amazon representative explained to VentureBeat via an email interview the various ways individuals maintain control.
“Each customer owns their own membership and has a copy of the data and has the ability to endorse a transaction (or not),” the representative said. “This gives all members in a network the ability to make decisions, achieve consensus, and have ownership.” He pointed out that what Amazon brings to the table is an assurance that applications “will be highly available, scalable, and fault tolerant.” He continued, “This allows customers to build enterprise-grade applications that leverage key properties of a blockchain on top of AWS’ industry-leading cloud infrastructure.”
The membership drives scalability, up or down, and it gives the network some internal efficiency. “Consortiums can form without specific owners and all members need to decide who can join or be removed. This again ties into decentralization for enterprise applications,” he said. He used the example of trade chain that requires numerous parties across international boundaries. “Each stakeholder wants to independently verify the documentation related to the trade and doesn’t want any single entity to own the record of activity,” he said. “The current process requires trade-related paperwork (for example, a letter of credit) to go back and forth between the stakeholders, which can take five to 10 business days to complete.”
But on a blockchain, each member in the trade process has a copy of the transaction ledger, and this is where smart contracts — enabled by blockchain technology — can smooth the process. “The business contract, such as a letter of credit, can be written as a smart contract in the blockchain application and can automatically execute as soon as all the parties provide a consensus to record the transaction,” he said.
There’s still no word on a timeline for further service rollouts, but pricing information is available on the Amazon Managed Blockchain page.
Update, 9:35 p.m. Pacific: Amazon replied to our questions after this article was originally published. We updated it with additional information and context.