Bitcoin is the world’s first cryptocurrency. It is a purely peer-to-peer electronic cash system that allows online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution. The Bitcoin system is the most widely accepted cryptocurrency system at present. However, due to its initial setting, such as block size and block time, its performance is limited to less than 10 transactions per second.
Bitcoins can be accepted as a means of payment for products sold or services provided. If you have a brick and mortar store, just display a sign saying “Bitcoin Accepted Here” and many of your customers may well take you up on it; the transactions can be handled with the requisite hardware terminal or wallet address through QR codes and touch screen apps. An online business can easily accept bitcoins by just adding this payment option to the others it offers, like credit cards, PayPal, etc. Online payments will require a Bitcoin merchant tool (an external processor like Coinbase or BitPay).
What bitcoin miners actually do could be better described as competitive bookkeeping. Miners build and maintain a gigantic public ledger containing a record of every bitcoin transaction in history. Every time somebody wants to send bitcoins to somebody else, the transfer has to be validated by miners: They check the ledger to make sure the sender isn’t transferring money she doesn’t have. If the transfer checks out, miners add it to the ledger. Finally, to protect that ledger from getting hacked, miners seal it behind layers and layers of computational work—too much for a would-be fraudster to possibly complete.
The Bitcoin protocol was designed to encourage the distribution of hashing power among miners rather than its concentration. The reason? Miners wield power not only over which transactions get added to the Bitcoin blockchain but over the evolution of the Bitcoin software itself. When updates are made to the protocol, it is the miners, largely, who enforce these changes. If the miners band together and choose not to deploy an update from Bitcoin’s core developers, they can stall transactions or even cause the currency to split into competing versions.
To be accepted by the rest of the network, a new block must contain a so-called proof-of-work (PoW). The system used is based on Adam Back's 1997 anti-spam scheme, Hashcash. The PoW requires miners to find a number called a nonce, such that when the block content is hashed along with the nonce, the result is numerically smaller than the network's difficulty target.:ch. 8 This proof is easy for any node in the network to verify, but extremely time-consuming to generate, as for a secure cryptographic hash, miners must try many different nonce values (usually the sequence of tested values is the ascending natural numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, ...:ch. 8) before meeting the difficulty target.
The code that makes bitcoin mining possible is completely open-source, and developed by volunteers. But the force that really makes the entire machine go is pure capitalistic competition. Every miner right now is racing to solve the same block simultaneously, but only the winner will get the prize. In a sense, everybody else was just burning electricity. Yet their presence in the network is critical.
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The difficulty is a number that regulates how long it takes for miners to add new blocks of transactions to the blockchain. Because the target is such an unwieldy number with tons of digits, people generally use a simpler number to express the current target. This number is called the mining difficulty. This difficulty value updates every 2 weeks to ensure that it takes 10 minutes (on average) to add a new block to the blockchain. The difficulty is so important because, it ensures that blocks of transactions are added to the blockchain at regular intervals, even as more miners join the network. If the difficulty remained the same, it would take less time between adding new blocks to the blockchain as new miners join the network. The difficulty adjusts every 2016 blocks. At this interval, each node takes the expected time for these 2016 blocks to be mined (2016 x 10 minutes), and divides it by the actual time it took. It can be calculated as follows:
Network nodes can validate transactions, add them to their copy of the ledger, and then broadcast these ledger additions to other nodes. To achieve independent verification of the chain of ownership each network node stores its own copy of the blockchain. About every 10 minutes, a new group of accepted transactions, called a block, is created, added to the blockchain, and quickly published to all nodes, without requiring central oversight. This allows bitcoin software to determine when a particular bitcoin was spent, which is needed to prevent double-spending. A conventional ledger records the transfers of actual bills or promissory notes that exist apart from it, but the blockchain is the only place that bitcoins can be said to exist in the form of unspent outputs of transactions.:ch. 5