What’s behind Microsoft Azure’s new Ethereum-based feature

What’s behind Microsoft Azure’s new Ethereum-based feature
Photo Credit: Reuters
8 Aug, 2018

Tech giant Microsoft has added a new Ethereum-based feature called Proof-of-Authority (PoA) to its Azure cloud platform as part of efforts to further leverage its use of blockchain technology.

The development comes after Microsoft tasted success with an earlier project, named Proof-of-Work (PoW), that was also based on the Ethereum platform, 

Ethereum is an open-source, blockchain-based distributed computing platform and operating system featuring smart contract functionality. Ether is a cryptocurrency whose blockchain is generated by the Ethereum platform.

Cody Born, a software engineer at Microsoft's Azure Global division, said that PoA is an alternative protocol that is more suitable for permissioned networks where all consensus participants are known and reputable. 

"Without the need for mining, Proof-of-Authority is more efficient while still retaining Byzantine fault tolerance," he said.

This means that the protocol will support only pre-fixed and verified participants or nodes and there will be therefore be no need for verifying the participants for each transaction on the blockchain, cutting out the need for mining or crypto values being assigned.

On the other hand, PoW, which Born said has been deployed tens of thousands of times across a variety of industry verticals, uses a mechanism that leverages computation costs to self-regulate the network and allow fair participation. 

"This works great in anonymous, open networks where competition for cryptocurrency promotes security on the network. However, in private/consortium networks such as PoA the underlying ether has no value," he explained.

Born also said that in Proof-of-Authority, each consensus node on the network has its own Ethereum identity. "In case a node goes down, a member will not lose consensus participation as each member would run redundant consensus nodes to ensure a highly available network presence," he said.

"To accomplish this, we’ve built an abstraction which allows each consensus participant to delegate multiple nodes to run on their behalf. Each Azure Proof-of-Authority network comes with our identity leasing system that ensures that no two nodes carry the same identity. In the case of a regional outage, new nodes can quickly spin up and resume the previous nodes’ identities," Born explained.

Born also said that Microsoft has tried to take away pain points of several developers because Ethereum often needs Solidity as the base language to be 
programmed on.

"To address this, we’ve enabled Parity’s web-assembly support, allowing developers to author smart contracts in familiar languages such as C, C++, and Rust," he said.

The company has also added a monitoring service along with the new PoA feature so that all nodes and their statistics can be tracked. 

"For application developers, this provides visibility into the underlying blockchain to track block generation statistics. Network operators can use Azure Monitor to quickly detect and prevent network outages through infrastructure statistics and queryable logs," Born explained.
Explaining further, Born said that the company has also tried to solve issues around customers managing infrastructure. Since many customers don't want to manage infrastructure themselves, the company has used a specific software to build a level of abstraction that allows users to separate consortium governance from network operation.