Microsoft Azure Blockchain Tutorial

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Blockchain is rapidly expanding into different sectors. Many big organizations are building their own blockchain infrastructure from scratch. This will give them an added advantage when it comes to adapting to the blockchain revolution. However, not every business can afford the luxury to create its own blockchain infrastructure. That’s where the Blockchain as a Service comes in.

We are moving towards a smart economy, and it is up to the business to adapt to the new blockchain infrastructure. Blockchain also holds the key to accelerate business performance and empower enterprises to improve their execution. It will also help them increase accountability, improve transparency, and make business decisions based on real data.

In this article, we will be exploring the Microsoft Azure BaaS. The Azure cloud platform is one of the most advanced cloud platforms out there. They recently launched their Blockchain service to keep up with the technological development in the sector. There is no doubt that there are many businesses out there that can make use of the Azure BaaS services. Their Azure service did take its time before opening up for the public. According to the report at TechCrunch, they took their own sweet time before making their blockchain services live.

The Ultimate Guide to Azure Blockchain

Awesome! We went through Blockchain-as-a-Service(BaaS), its importance, examples, and much more. Now, we are equipped with the knowledge to understand Azure Blockchain. So, without any delay, let’s get started.

AZURE BLOCKCHAIN

What is Azure Blockchain?

Microsoft is a technology leader with its roots in cloud technology. Their Azure cloud platform has proved its dominance. But, Microsoft knew that they have a more prominent role to play in the market. That’s where the Azure Blockchain and Azure Blockchain application comes in. We can also term as “Blockchain on Azure.”

Azure offers a complete end-to-end solution for developing, hosting, and managing blockchain solutions. As a developer, you can start with their simplified development platform and experiment using pre-defined and modular networks. The infrastructure is built to support simplified development. Moreover, the tools are built around the idea of getting up and running quickly. Blockchain on Azure is all about validation and iteration.

We can also define it as “fully managed ledger service” that offers business the ability to operate and grow blockchain networks. Enterprises have full control over the blockchain network governance and as well as the infrastructure.

The Azure Blockchain is built to keep both processes and data secure, enabling the companies to innovate with confidence.

Blockchain as a service is not blockchain!

If you are new to blockchain, then you might get confused by the terms. Or maybe you think that Azure BaaS and the blockchain technology are the same? But that’s not true.

Blockchain is the technology that has features such as transparency, integrity, decentralization, and so on. However, there are different types of blockchain, including hybrid, private, etc. But, a true blockchain is mainly dedicated to the fact that runs a truly decentralized network, and not any variations of it. The true blockchain idea came into existence with bitcoin. It is a completely decentralized network build-up of nodes that take care of the overall consensus.

Azure Blockchain-as-a-Service(BaaS), on the other hand, use blockchain technology and provide service to their clients. However, their approach is not decentralized at all. BaaS is entirely opposite of decentralized as it offers a centralized platform for selling, building, and marketing blockchain. BaaS as an ecosystem provides value, but to do so, it has to go against the basic idea of decentralized blockchain.

BaaS is not genuinely decentralized as they are completely focused on the “ecosystem” that provides blockchain services, which may directly contradict the core philosophy of decentralized. Samantha Radocchia covers the issue on his medium post. Do check it out to learn how both of them fair.

The same can be said true for the Azure blockchain-as-a-service. It is a managed solution which doesn’t provide true decentralization. It is equally capable of solving solution, which makes it ideal for startups, business, and enterprise that work in a closed ecosystem, but do want the benefits of blockchain.

Blockchain networks supported by the Azure Blockchain

At the time of writing, Azure Blockchain Service supports Ethereum Quorum Ledger, Corda, and Hyperledger Fabric. As a business, you do not have to manage the ledger. Also, there is no cost associated with the ledger itself. However, you need to pay for the app development and its cost when it runs on the blockchain. You will get virtual machines and the associated infrastructure by allocating the required resources and time.

Open source tool support: The blockchain network supports open source tools. That means you can continue developing your application using the platform and open source tools. Once done, you can deploy your application over the blockchain network.

Azure Blockchain Features

Support for different blockchain networks

Azure Blockchain Services comes with the support of four prominent Azure blockchain frameworks including the Quorum, Ethereum, Corda and Hyperledger Fabric. Also, these frameworks are not limited, as Azure Blockchain will surely add support for other ledger protocols in the future. In short, there will be more “Azure Blockchain Framework.”

No administration required

Azure manages all the backend tools and infrastructure for managing the blockchain network.

Simplified deployment

It is easy to deploy Azure blockchain service through the available tools such as the Azure CLI, Azure portal. Even the Visual Studio code has been updated to support Azure Blockchain extension, which makes it easier for the developer to create blockchain-related apps.  Other than that, it is also accessible to provisioning validator and transaction nodes. Moreover, you can also manage the security and the storage of Azure Virtual Networks.

As a developer, you can easily configure and create a consortium blockchain infrastructure.

Azure BaaS Simple Deployment

Security

All the transaction and validator nodes are protected using firewall rules. As the owner, you need to configure the firewall before you can access them. Also, data encryption is provided for all the transaction nodes. It is done via TLS.  On top of it, you can also add basic authentication, add more firewall rules, or even add access keys.

You will also be amazed at the fact that Microsoft is very serious about security and have already invested USD1 billion annually. They also have employed 3500 security experts who ensure data privacy. Lastly, they also have more certifications compared to other cloud provider validating their security aspect.

Maintenance

The nodes are also maintained to ensure that they run with the latest version of the blockchain. Azure BaaS is a managed service, and hence everything is managed by the Azure themselves.

Consortium management

The consortium management is baked within the Azure blockchain. With it, you get full access to the consortia. You also get full node management and the ability to add or remove members. Other key features supported by the consortium management include simplified policy enforcement and codeless permissioning. You can read more about consortium management here.

Monitoring and logging

The monitoring feature is fully developed. Here, you will get tons of rich metrics to monitor your blockchain environment. It is managed by Azure Monitor Service where you can get information about nodes storage, CPU, memory and other important metrics including transaction queue depth, blocks mined, and so on!

Azure Blockchain WorkBench

Azure Blockchain WorkBench is a free tool provided by Microsoft which lets you manage Azure blockchain applications. It is composed of Azure capabilities and services which allows you to deploy and create blockchain applications. You can read more about the Azure Blockchain WorkBench here.

Azure WorkBench is created through 18 months of hard work by the Azure team. They have worked with developers and crafted blockchain templates.

Pricing

They also offer two tiers to ensure that the business can choose the one that best suits them. These tiers are divided according to different capabilities and performance. The basic tier comes with 1 vCores and 5 GB storage. It is perfect for lightweight development. Moreover, it can also be used to do workload testing. Both the tiers are highly scalable, so you will not have any issue scaling your blockchain app.

  • Basic: 1 vCore, 5 GB storage, 1 validator nodes, 1 transaction nodes. The basic tier doesn’t have hybrid deployment support. It also doesn’t have the high availability metric which makes it ideal for testing environment.
  • Standard: 2 vCore, 5 GB Storage,  2 validator nodes, 1 transaction nodes, 99.99% availability.

The pricing of the two tiers available is as below:

  • Basic: $0.075/hour for transaction node price, $0.075/hour for validator node price, and $0.05/hour for blockchain storage price GB.
  • Standard:  $0.318/hour for transaction node price, $0.318/hour for validator node price, and $0.05/hour for blockchain storage price GB.

The pricing of the tiers is calculated based on node and storage cost. So, for example, if you did a test consisting of two members(using Quorum blockchain). In that case, the base tier cost will cost you $221 per month, considering that a month consists of 730 hours. Similarly, the standard tier will cost $733.92 for three members. There are other parameters to the calculations and that’s why we recommend checking their official pricing page where they have everything listed.

This ends our list of Azure blockchain features.

Companies using Azure Blockchain – Azure Blockchain Use Cases

To better understand the power of Azure blockchain, let’s take a look at the companies that are using it and also try to learn how they are doing it.

Starbucks: Starbucks is riding high on the blockchain innovation. However, to fully implement their idea, they are taking the help of Microsoft. They recently made a significant deal with Microsoft to ensure that they can grow in the right direction. In the partnership, they are going to use the Azure blockchain cloud services. Initially, they started with their blockchain initiative in 2018 where they are going to actively use the blockchain in helping the Rwandan, Colombia, and Costa Rica. They are using the coffee-tracking system, which is blockchain based. The role of Microsoft comes in during the serving process part, including coffee-making machines, drive-thru ordering, and tracking.

Insurwave: Marine insurance has been one of the biggest problems that need to be solved in the 21st century. Blockchain, on the other hand, can solve the problem through its unique features such as transparency, immutability, and more! Insurwave is one of those companies that is created by big players, including EY, Guardtime, A.P. Moller-Maersk, and R3, to create the world’s first marine insurance blockchain platform. They area utilize Microsoft Azure to empower the enterprise and global blockchain solution.

Xbox: Microsoft’s own sub-division Xbox utilize Azure blockchain to their advantage. They use blockchain to provide information regarding royalty to the Xbox game publishers. It is done in real-time, which improves the process from 45 days to just a few minutes. Overall, it is a step forward towards automating one of the critical aspects of Xbox using blockchain on Azure. The adoption was done in 2018, and they are already able to improve their systems a lot!

Nasdaq:  Capital markets can also benefit immensely from the blockchain. Nasdaq knows that, and that is why they have been using Azure blockchain. Their technology arm is mission critical and hosts an infrastructure that governs more than 100+ exchanges and other departments that are running across the 50 countries! Their move is to integrate Nasdaq Financial Framework that takes care of the whole infrastructure with blockchain. Azure is leading them into the next generation of financial structure that will utilize the multi-ledger strategy.

Other companies that are utilizing Azure blockchain include Project Ubin, webjet.com.au, 3M, Interswitch, and much more!

Solutions Architecture – Azure Blockchain

A blockchain-as-a-service(BaaS) have tons of use-cases where it can be used. Azure also supports diverse industries and use-cases. For example, it can be utilized in different sectors including Financial Services, Gaming, Health & Life Sciences, Retail, and Manufacturing. This means that it can be implemented in a lot of use-cases.

Azure Blockchain has provided two solutions architecture on their site so that you get a good idea of what they have to offer.

Now, let’s take a look at the two solutions architecture

Supply Chain Track and Trace

Supply Chain is one of the most common problems that can be solved using blockchain. The main idea is to make sure that an asset can move through a network without getting modified through the transit. We have supply chains all around the industry. Almost every sector uses the supply chain to improve their work process. Healthcare, for example, is also known to have serious problems when it comes to supply chain management. By using blockchain and implying compliance rules, the supply chain can be improved impressively. Below is the supply chain architecture using Azure.

Azure Architecture Supply Chain Track and Trace

Fig 1: Supply Chain Architecture Using Azure Blockchain and IoT

Blockchain Workflow Application

Blockchain is equally useful in changing a workplace workflow. It can help blockchain digitize the workflow and help improve both internal and external working of an organization. It also impacts how the supply chain works, improving the way assets flow through it. The blockchain workflow application architecture covers most of the blockchain apps anatomy and will help any developer to implement diverse use cases.

At first, the developer needs to use the Azure Blockchain Services to implement its own managed blockchain network. Once done, then a consortium application can be built on top of it while connecting with different user interface and apps across the same consortium.

Azure Blockchain workflow application

The flow of information in this kind of architecture is as follows:

  • App sends the data or events to the Azure Service Bus(message broker)
  • The data will be sent to the DLT(Distributed Ledger Technology) consumer Logic App. It will be sent from Service Bus. Now, the transaction builder gets the information so that the transaction can be built and signed.
  • Now the transaction is taken into the Ethereum consortium network on top of the Azure Blockchain Service. It utilizes a ledger-specific Logic App connector
  • The transaction once committed gets confirmed by the DLT watcher Logic APP. It is now then sent to the off-chain storage and databases.
  • Tools such as power BI is then used to analyze and visualize the stored information.
  • Now the broker can then use the data and send it to different business processes.

The above flow of information is standard among most of the blockchain-powered apps or networks that utilize Azure blockchain. A lot of different Azure products are used in the architecture, including Azure IoT Hub, Service Bus, Power BI, Power Apps. This is where Azure takes advantage over other blockchain solutions as it gives a complete end-to-end solution for implementing blockchain apps on Azure.

Azure Marketplace

The Azure marketplace is booming with tools that you can use to improve your Azure blockchain development. Let’s list below the tools that can help you get the best out of the Azure blockchain service.

App Accelerators

  • Azure Blockchain Workbench – Create blockchain applications easily.
  • Vizix IOT blockchain for Retail Supply Chain – IoT development tool.
  • Stratumn Indigo Node – Framework to build Proof of Process network
  • Trade Finance – Letter of Credit – Trade Finance Application

Multi-node ledger

  • Ethereum on Azure – Configure and deploy Ethereum blockchain network
  • BlockApps Multi Node Blockchain – An enterprise edition to manage multi private Ethereum blockchain.
  • EEA Single Member Blockchain – Configure and deploy Quorum blockchain
  • Mijin Azure BaaS  – It is a private blockchain platform.
  • R3 Single Network – Pre-configured network deployment for R3
  • Quorum – Quorum tool to configure and deploy Quorum blockchain
  • Hyperledger Fabric on Azure – Configure and deploy Hyperledger Fabric

Single-node ledger

  • Syscoin Full Node – Syscoin powered business blockchain platform
  • Quorum -Quorum blockchain deploy and configure
  • ERC-20 Token Service on Quorum – ERC20 Token Standard on Quorum
  • Ripple Development and Training Suit – Ripple Blockchain development environment and training
  • Ethereum Developer Kit – Ethereum environment for testing
  • KrypCore PoC Creation Edition – Create Proof of Concepts on Hyperledger using KrypCore.

Tools

  • Blockstack Core v14 – A new decentralized internet
  • Ethereum Studio – Blockchain Environment – Ethereum Blockchain Development complete package
  • Truffle – Ethereum development environment, asset pipeline, and testing framework
  • Parity Ethereum Dev – Lightweight and fast Ethereum deployment.
  • Rewards API – Customer Loyalty Programs rewards framework.

You can find the whole list of the Blockchain related tools on the Azure Marketplace here. Do keep checking it out as they will add more tools in the future.

Resources

Azure Blockchain Services have tons of resources that can help you master it. Some of them are created by Microsoft themselves. Let’s list a few of the noteworthy ones are mentioned below:

  • Azure Blockchain Service: Getting Started at MSDN.com – Here you will learn about how the Azure Blockchain Service works. The speakers teach the shared workflow applications and give you a walkthrough on how to deploy and configure blockchain infrastructure using Azure. The key topics that will be covered in the tutorial include consortium management, Azure Portal, service API interaction and much more!
  • Blockchain Development Kit – The blockchain development kit expands the possibilities for a developer to work with Azure and blockchain. It can be used with Azure Blockchain Workbench and blockchain developer templates.
  • Corda Tutorial – Azure Blockchain – Learn how to setup Corda blockchain with Azure blockchain
  • Azure Samples – Here you can find Azure blockchain demo.

Conclusion

Azure blockchain is one of the best-managed blockchain services out there. It has everything that you will need to create, deploy, and manage a consortium. It also comes with tons of features that will keep you well equipped within the ecosystem. However, that doesn’t mean that you can integrate or connect other service or applications. For example, you can use open source tools. Azure Blockchain Workbench is also an excellent tool that lets you manage your projects. But it is not a necessary tool.

With its services, you will also find a lot of resources to work with. To ensure that you do not feel stuck, we have included the resources in our article. The pricing is also well-done as they provide a two-tier pricing structure. This means that their Azure blockchain can be used for testing or smaller projects. So, what do you think about Azure blockchain services? Comment below and let us know.


About Author

Nitish holds a BSc in computer engineering. He is a blockchain enthusiast and in spare time likes to read about the moon. His articles have published on Dzone, InfoWorld, and Hongkiat.

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