There’s a computing arms race going on in the world of Bitcoin. Interest in the digital crypto-currency is driving the development of specialized hardware chips, which are selling out almost as fast as they can be built. This is boosting interest in data centers using immersion cooling, in which high-density hardware is dunked into fluids similar to mineral oil.
This new frontier in high-performance computing can be seen in Hong Kong, where a bitcoin mining company called ASICMiner has created an unusual data center. Within the facility, rows of rack-mounted tanks are filled with Novec, a liquid cooling solution created by 3M. Inside each tank,densely-packed boards of ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuits) run constantly as they crunch data for creating and tracking bitcoins. As the chips generate heat, the Novec boils off, removing the heat as it changes from liquid to gas.
These systems are part of a huge computing network driving global payment processing for Bitcoin, which uses processing power to verify transactions. Participants in the network – which includes individuals, corporations and mining collectives – are rewarded with the issuance of new bitcoins, which happens about every eight minutes. There’s a wrinkle: Over time the algorithms make it progressively harder to earn new bitcoins. If processing power remained static, it would take much longer to generate new bitcoins. The solution: more computing power!
Bitcoin mining can be done with traditional CPUs or GPUs, but most serious players have graduated to specialized chips such as FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) or ASICs that can be optimized for specific workloads. This has led to the emergence of a new class of hardware vendors selling custom hardware for bitcoin mining.
There are two key elements in bitcoin mining: computing power and electric power. Miners must make the most of both resources.
The state of bitcoin mining hardware is perhaps best expressed by Ravi Iyengar, who left a position as lead CPU architect at Samsung to launch CoinTerra, a startup building custom ASIC hardware for the bitcoin market. “I’ve been in arms races throughout my career – AMD, ARM, Intel,” Iyengar told Reuters. “But none of them match the intensity of Bitcoin mining. Each month in Bitcoin mining is like a year.”
Austin-based CoinTerra launched in August after closing a $1.5 million seed round of financing. It quickly sold out its first batch of units, and a similar sellout was reported by HashFast, a Bay Area startup featuring alumni of Xerox PARC and Engine Yard. Both CoinTerra and HashFast are building ASICs featuring state-of-the-art 28nm chip designs. Other early leaders in the Bitcoin hardware market include Avalon, KnCMiner, BitFury and Butterfly Labs.
The performance benchmark for Bitcoin hardware is gigahashes (GH) per second. The hash rate is the number of bitcoin calculations that hardware can perform every second. Tools have sprung up to help aspiring miners evaluate hardware performance and the economics of mining, including The Genesis Block and Decentralized Hashing.
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