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Product and Topic Expert
Product and Topic Expert

...going off the chain

Note:  This is part 1 of a 5 part series exploring the possibilities of using the Theta blockchain. Setting up a private node on BTP Smart Contract support Off-chain Micropayments Integration with S/4 Hana Finance


Theta is both a blockchain token and an interesting technology.

In the enterprise development world, it's the technology part is the most compelling aspect of it.  However, since this whole realm of blockchain and cryptocurrencies is foreign to many enterprise developers, we need to lay a common framework so that we can have productive discussion and not get distracted with the many potential diversions that lay ahead.


What is Theta and the Theta Token apart from blockchain?


The first pitfall.  Un-defining things so that you can start defining them again.

When I start attempting to explain anything blockchain to those who are uninitiated(think your parents or a neighbor) I find that I am starting out in a hole.  Many people use the terms blockchain and cryptocurrency interchangeably and we need to be clear what we're talking about.   Most of this confusion stems from Bitcoin being the first widespread use-case for blockchain technology and since Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency this is where the confusion starts.

I find it's best to start thinking of blockchain as a storage mechanism with some special characteristics.  I like to use the metaphor of a train.  The train allow you to put stuff on it and get the stuff to where others can use it.  Bitcoin was just the first kind of stuff that was put on the first blockchain implementation so people tend to think of them as one and the same.  Blockchain is the train, but you can put any kind of "stuff" you want on it.  Messages, links, documents(contracts) are all valid types of "cargo" that can go on the train.

Some of the things that make blockchain special are that it's immutable, tamper evident, transparent and decentralized.  It's purely read and append only.  There is no delete or update so if you want to change something that is already on the blockchain, you just append the changed version onto the end and always look at the most recent one.  Same with delete.  You have to add a note to indicate to not look at the old version any more.  While these characteristics seem limiting, they make a perfect mechanism for digital currencies and that's why cryptocurrencies use it.


The blockchain is really a set of blockchains(nodes) that are always trying to keep themselves in agreement with each other.  You can look at any node and you are insured that its contents are the same as the others.  How the various copies of the blockchain come to this agreement is what makes them different.  We won't get into a detailed discussion of this as other blogs have explained it better.  The main thing to understand is that various parties that are interested in what's on the blockchain can completely know it without have to trust each other or a central authority.


If we don't care about the cryptocurrency for our use-case, why do we need it at all?


If you watch the business news you'll see that blockchain and cryptocurrencies are coming up a lot lately.  You'll often hear that Bitcoin is the biggest and that Etherium is smaller but has support for smart contracts (the "stuff", remember) and that there are a bunch of also-rans called alt-coins that nobody seems to know why they exist but fluctuate wildly in value.  Each cryptocurrency has its own rules for how it created and how its use is optimized for various use cases.  The ones that have gained popularity are available for purchase on crypto exchanges.  These are businesses that allow you to exchange your hard earned native currency(Dollars, Euros, Yuan, etc) for cryptocurrencies and charge a fee for the service(like the foreign currency exchangers at airports).  The reason they are needed even if we only care about putting other stuff on the blockchain is that most blockchains charge a fee for sending(appending) a transaction("stuff") to the blockchain.  This is part of how the network of nodes is paid in order to facilitate coordinating the agreement(consensus) of all the copies of the blockchain running on the nodes(when the stuff is cryptocurrency the agreement is called settlement).


If Etherium is the most popular that has smart contract capability, why not use it?


Bitcoin was the first and the original developers didn't design it to scale to match it's success.  The result is long settlement times.  Etherium is faster and can settle in minutes.  But even that can be to long for some use-cases.  I've been looking at various other cryptos and Theta stands out for being even faster, cheaper, and has an interesting technical feature called off-chain micropayments that is worth digging into further when we think about applying blockchain technology to enterprise use cases.


I looked around and this Theta thing doesn't look very enterprisy at all!


Theta(the Theta network) and it's two cryptocurrencies (Theta and Theta Fuel or TFuel for short) were primarily designed to address a video streaming content (stuff) use-case in a way that was cost effective and utilizes a network of community participants to facilitate video content sharing.  If you start researching Theta you are likely to be put off by all the video gaming, virtual reality role-playing, poker tournament and wacky video content.  Add to that there is a heavy group of traders and speculators making claims about the future value of everything including Theta.  I think it's important to look past the surface and into the underlying technology.  Technologies are often propelled by a single "killer-app" (think internet + email / desktop computer + excel) that doesn't always following the founder's initial vision.  I think there is opportunity here for the enterprise space and it's worth digging deeper.


What's bolstering Theta above any other alternative?


Since we're still in the early days of cryptocurrencies, the horse race is far from over.  From my digging, a few things about Theta set it apart.  They've been awarded several key patents pertaining to the technology claims that make Theta unique.  They've got some committed investors and pretty heavyweight partners which is always good for helping to survive over time.  All that said nobody knows if it will survive the race.  It seems to me that it has a good chance for the particular use cases that it's addressing.
Full Disclosure:  I have hold a nominal quantity of this cryptocurrency but in no way is this blog post to be considered any sort of advice, financial or other, just the authors opinion and not that of my employer SAP.


Fair enough, what's needed to kick it around?


You can interact with nodes on the Theta network through a simple Remote Procedure Call(RPC) interface so you can poke at it with curl command line tool.  Here's a simple call to check the status of the Theta blockchain.
curl -X POST -H 'Content-Type: application/json' --data '{"jsonrpc":"2.0","method":"theta.GetStatus","params":[],"id":1}'

There is also a dedicated CLI called thetacli but you're currently required to compile it for yourself from source code.  You can find the details here.

While you can interact with the live Theta network(what they call MainNet) and query it's status or the account balances of known wallets(more on this later) or the number of the most recent block, in order to submit(or send) a transaction you will need a small amount of TFuel to pay for it.  As of the time of the writing of this post(and especially in the US) it is difficult to purchase TFuel.  You may have to purchase some other crypto(BTC/ETH) and then use a crypto exchange service to exchange it into TFuel.  However, since you're likely just evaluating the viability of using the Theta network for your enterprise use-case, you can set up your own "private"net network.   I'll be using the SAP Business Application Studio(BAS) for the development environment and the CloudFoundry environment within Business Technology Platform(BTP) to provide a "privatenet" with an built-in supply of THETA and TFuel tokens for any experimentation.


OK, OK enough chatter, how do I get started exploring Theta?


We're going to dive into the specifics of developing for the Theta blockchain the next installment of this blog post series.  Click the following to continue.

The Case For Theta : Part 2


Let me know if you have and questions or issues by leaving me a question below or better yet, asking it on the SAP community.


Partners: If you have a question, click here to ask it in the SAP Community . Be sure to tag it with Partnership and leave your company name in the question so that we can better assist you.