A Comprehensive Guide on The Basics of Cryptocurrency & Bitcoin Mining
The cryptocurrency market was absolutely on fire in 2017, delivering what might be the best year for any asset class on record. After beginning the year with an aggregate market cap of just $17.7 billion, digital currencies combined to finish the year at $613 billion, representing an increase in value of more than 3,300%.
What is Cryptocurrency Mining?
Cryptocurrency mining is one of the most commonly used methods of validating transactions that have been executed over a blockchain network. Not only does blockchain work to protect transaction data through encryption, as well as store this data in a decentralized manner (i.e., on hard drives and servers all over the world) so as to keep a single entity from gaining control of a network, but also the primary goal is to ensure that the same crypto token isn't spent twice. In effect, "mining" is one means of making sure that cryptocurrency transactions are accurate and true, such that they can never be compromised in the future.
Crypto Mining in a Nutshell
Crypto mining is a computational process using complex computer hardware that deals with a series of mathematical equations. The main goal is to verify all the transactions that are present in the digital ledger, this is rewarded with more crypto-coins.
Doing so makes you a vital part of the network. All the effort you exert, and the energy your computer uses is rewarded in the form of cryptocurrency. What’s great about this is that it can be done anytime and anywhere, as long as you have strong-enough computer hardware and an internet connection.
Take for example gold
Mining crypto can be compared to mining gold. This is because the supply increases as more is acquired through the mining process. To mine crypto coins, you need to solve complex mathematical problems that only sophisticated computer hardware can do.
The level of complexity can also increase through time, so it can become harder to mine them. It’s just like mining gold because it becomes harder to mine through time, knowing that the reserves are diminishing. Crypto mining also needs more resources as time goes by. Thus, limiting the supply of crypto coins.
The Best Cryptocurrencies to Mine
might be the most popular cryptocurrency to date, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best crypto to mine. It might be if you’d go back to 2009 where it was still a low-profile crypto. But things have changed, and the up-front investment is continually skyrocketing.
Not to mention the increasing difficulty in mining it. It’s just not practical for small-scale mining, especially if you’re only using consumer-level hardware. Bitcoin mining is ideal for large-scale operations.
What you want to mine are scrypt-based cryptocurrencies like Dogecoins, Litecoins, and Feathercoins. These are the best cryptos for beginners because you can use a simple desktop computer to mine them. Though earning anywhere between 50 cents to $10 per day isn’t much, it’s still a more practical alternative because you won’t need to have an enormous capital to begin mining them.
Just remember that crypto mining becomes more difficult as more people hop onto the “crypto rush.” You will eventually need to upgrade your hardware and invest heavily in continue mining that specific cryptocurrency. But there’s a way around it, and that is by switching to new crypto coins that are easier to mine.
The Cryptocurrency Mining Process
Crypto mining is all about contributing time and energy to the blockchain-powered digital ledger. This is where crypto transactions take place. Mining provides bookkeeping services to the crypto’s network, with the help of computer hardware.
This is an energy-intensive process, that’s why you also need to make sure you keep personal costs, such as energy and hardware, to a minimum. You are then paid a small fraction of coins as a reward for your contribution, thus the term crypto mining.
How Cryptocurrency Mining Works
Cryptocurrency mining itself refers to a type of validation model known as "proof-of-work" (PoW). There are two common validation types, and we'll look at the other, known as proof-of-stake, in a moment.
In the PoW model -- which bitcoin, Ethereum, Bitcoin Cash, and Litecoin use, to name a few -- individuals, groups, or businesses compete with one another with high-powered computers to be the first to solve complex mathematical equations that are essentially part of the encryption mechanism.
These equations correspond to a group of transactions, which is known as a block. The first individual, group, or business that solves these transactions, and in the process validates the accuracy of these transactions within a block, receives a "block reward." A block reward is paid out as digital tokens of the currency that's being validated.
As an example, the current block reward for bitcoin is 12.5 tokens. That means whoever is the first to correctly solve equations for a block is paid 12.5 tokens. With bitcoin near $9,500 per coin, that works out to a nearly $119,000 haul. Hard drives and graphics processing units attached to a monitor.
Are there disadvantages to the PoW model?
There are two major concerns attached to the PoW model. First, it's an extremely electricity-intensive practice. To mine virtual currencies, massive mining centers with graphics processing units and/or ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) chips are set up to handle this validation and processing. The electricity costs, depending on where an operation is located, can be enormous. It could also, in theory, be a drain on local or national electric grids, depending on how large digital networks and mining farms become.
The other issue is that the PoW model has a security vulnerability, at least for smaller digital currencies. Any individual or group that can gain control of 51% of a networks computing power could essentially hold that network and digital currency hostage. Networks the size of bitcoin, Ethereum, and Litecoin have next to nothing to worry about. However, newly issued coins with fewer participants could be susceptible.
Is all PoW mining the same?
Though cryptocurrency mining might often be lumped in as one big free-for-all, there are differences in the equipment being used to validate transactions. For bitcoin, miners need to use highly specialized and expensive ASIC chips because of the difficulty in validating bitcoin transactions.
Meanwhile, most other virtual currencies allow miners to use some variation of graphics processing units from the likes of NVIDIA or Advanced Micro Devices to proof transactions. However, the difficulty in this mining can still vary from one cryptocurrency to the next.
Crypto currency mining has been through some ups and downs and recently video card manufacturers like Nvidia announced diminishing sales. Nvidia saw massive share price growth over the course of two years: over seven times. And now the share price dropped over 5% after reports of reduced demand for Nvidia GPUs for mining. Is this the sign of a turning point for mining?
Not all mining is the same
To understand what’s going on we must point out that NOT all blockchains are equal and miner population dynamics impact the returns of mining on each blockchain differently. Some blockchains have completely walked away from the Proof of Work (PoW) consensus mechanism (e.g. Proof of Stake in EOS) altogether but more on that later.
Mining the “king” of coins, Bitcoin, has been moot for individuals with do it yourself (DIY) GPU miners. GPU hashing power is simply overwhelmed by dedicated ASIC miners for the past few years now, due to the nature of Bitcoin’s mining algorithm. Ordinary home computing equipment can’t compete.
Ethereum is quite different because its hashing algorithm requires a lot of memory look-up and is inherently limited by memory bandwidth. GPUs have excellent memory systems, to meet the demand for high-end gaming, and Ethereum is served mostly by GPU rigs, set up by individuals or big farms.
Lastly altcoins are a mixed bag, but present perfect opportunities for DIY miners who purchase retail video cards due to a lack of congestion (low overall network mining rates).
Depressed cryptocurrency prices and power costs
The primary influencer is the diminishing returns on investment resulting from the recent drop and suppression of cryptocurrencies across the board along with power consumption costs. Essentially as the price of the mined currency drops the power consumption cost dominates to reduce the profit. Power guzzling GPUs with low hash rates put miners in the red. Doing the math is easy on a mining profit calculator like CryptoCompare.
DIY mining is dead until prices rise again
A decent four GPU mining configuration can cost about $3,000 to build, and draws 800-1000 watts. Big farms do mad optimizations to reduce these factors, but the DIY hobbyist is not endowed with the time, economies of scale, and an engineering team to tweak the factors in their favor. The best price to power vs. hash rate video card on the market in 2018 for Ether mining was the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070. It costs about $600 USD and runs at 150w for 30MH/s. With four of them and a motherboard you’re in the 800w ballpark for 120MH/s and down $3,000 USD. When we plugged these figures into the calculator for today’s USD to Ether exchange rates ($263/Eth) and power costs (global average of $0.12/kWh) miners actually have net losses of $7.55 cents per month. The break-even point is at 712 watts or when the Ether price goes above $282 USD per Ether.
In addition to losing money, DIY miners don’t have a chance to get a return on their investment within a year until Ether prices go way up $400-500 with relatively the same total network hash metric. It makes sense that many individual DIY miners have tried and realized the costs outweigh the benefits at the current exchange rates. So many don’t bother mining anymore after being burned by the low or negative yield. Many of the purchased graphics cards are now flooding the second-hand market, and indirectly affecting NVidia’s sales of new cards.
ASIC Miners Bricked
Custom chips (ASICs) designed for mining have high hashrates and are power efficient. ASIC performance and efficiency is unparalleled, but the risk is high. ASIC miners can be “bricked” (made useless) by changing a single bit in the hashing algorithm.
This happened recently in summer of 2018 when Bitmain’s miners were bricked before purchasers could take delivery after a presale. Monero developers purposefully changed their hashing algorithm to make their blockchain resistant to Bitmain’s miner, making the ASIC miner essential worthless. BitMain even started a fire sale on useless miners at a fraction of their price. Consumers who spent billions on ASIC miners were burned overnight.
ASICs drew capital away from those that would have purchased custom GPU miners. Now, especially after Monero developers proposed changes to their blockchain hashing algorithm every six months to always ensure ASIC resistance, the mining community realizes ASICs are a risky bet. The cash pulled out by ASIC miners should start to flow back into GPU sales. There will always be a minimum delay of a few months before market fluctuations are felt and reported in quarterly reports.
Mining clouds and farms
Mining farms have special deals with hardware vendors to purchase cheap hardware in bulk and have designed their own low power configurations. They’re not going out and buying video cards at retail stores. They’ve got the know-how, economy of scale, and engineering teams to bring the costs down low enough to make the endeavor appealing. Combine this with cheap power from geothermal sources like in Iceland (i.e. Genesis Mining) or Canada’s hydroelectric dams (such as Bitfarms), then you have a the ability to profit at scale even with very low currency prices.
Both Genesis and Bitfarms seem to understand the evolution and are reducing the barrier of entry by using a cloud model for others to rent miners in their facilities, as a mean to raise capital and minimize risk.
Latest advance: FPGA miners
OptDyn is producing turnkey miners (it serves as your broadband router too) for memory hard hashing algorithms like the Ethereum hashing (Ethash) algorithm. The Subutai Blockchain Router takes another approach to enabling a turnkey solution that’s flexible like GPU’s, unlike ASICs, and has high performance (hash rates) with low power consumption. The “green” mining appliance uses low power consuming yet performing reprogrammable chips called Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA).
In order to enable everyone to participate in the cryptocurrency economy, you need to provide end users an easy turnkey, and cost-effective means to earn cryptocurrency. The next generation of the Residential Edition of the Subutai Blockchain Router (an advanced broadband router that also serves as a plug-and-play cryptocurrency wallet and mining device) will draw 50-75 watts at a hash rate of 232 MH/s. At today’s exchange rates ($263/Eth), users will earn about $115 USD worth of Ether per month. The Subutai Blockchain Router Residential Edition will be available early 2019, initially through ISP providers.
Impact of proof of stake alternatives
Unbeatable natural forces will keep Proof of Work (PoW) here for some time so don’t presume Proof of Stake (PoS) is reducing the demand for mining hardware. Blockchain networks are influenced by the same change-resistive inertial forces that have prevented the Internet from transitioning en masse to IPv6. It’s widely accepted that IPv6 is better than IPv4 but we’ve not made it through that barrier in over two decades. Don’t expect PoS to cause diminished sales for PoW hardware for the same reasons. PoW is trusted, proven, and provides the only reliable physically guaranteed protection against the Byzantine Generals’ Problem: everything else is a social experiment.
More importantly, no one wants to risk millions on an experiment. If anything we will see years of migration as value is transferred from old reliable PoW networks to new ones (if they work) on the same blockchain stack or using new approaches like EOS. PoS is not the reason for the decline in hardware demand.
Cryptocurrency mining is evolving, not dying
Expect the cryptocurrency market to come back with more fiat currency volatility hitting markets. Emerging markets have already destabilized with currency crises in Venezuela, Argentina and Turkey. With market corrections, more sanctions to come, responses to them and chain reactions in markets even the strong dollar will suffer unless there are major course corrections soon. The cryptocurrency markets that are dramatically suppressed right now will come back very strong which will make mining even for the DIY hobbyist reasonably profitable again.
The best option however is to consider the latest evolving solutions to mining where the investment is offset through your telecommunication provider for a mining broadband device or through a cloud subscription model for the hardware in a specialized farm. If you have the hardware lying around and want to tinker then go for it. However going forward the DIY miners will not be the optimal way for the future.
The diminishing demand for GPU miners is not that cryptocurrency mining is dead, it is just evolving and taking other forms. The drop in sales is also temporary and will go back up as soon as the cryptocurrency market starts to recover.
We see the PoW mining market evolving from advanced users with superb technology skills towards a mass market for everyday users. We’re excited about helping everyone benefit from the blockchain economy by providing accessible, efficient, and eco-friendly cryptocurrency mining solutions at scale. After all, what a better way to usher in the promise of the decentralization and democratization of cryptocurrency.