Nor was it simply the deep pockets. At these prices, even smaller operators have been able to make real money running a few machines in home-based, under-the-radar mines. Take the 20-something Wenatchee man we’ll call “Benny”—he didn’t want to be identified—who last July bought three mining servers, set them up in his house (one in the master bedroom and two in the living room)—and began mining Ethereum, bitcoin’s closest cryptocurrency rival. As Ethereum climbed from $165 in July to nearly $1,200 in January, Benny had not only repaid his $7,000 investment but was making enough to pay his mortgage. As a side benefit, this winter, Benny’s power bill went down: The waste heat from the three churning servers kept the house at a toasty 78 degrees. “We actually have to open the windows,” he told me in January. His servers, meanwhile, pretty much run themselves—although, when he’s at work, clerking at a grocery, he monitors the machines, and the Ethereum price, on his phone. “It’s just basically free money,” Benny says. “All I have to do is wake up in the morning and make sure nothing crashed during the night.”
The use of bitcoin by criminals has attracted the attention of financial regulators, legislative bodies, law enforcement, and the media. In the United States, the FBI prepared an intelligence assessment, the SEC issued a pointed warning about investment schemes using virtual currencies, and the U.S. Senate held a hearing on virtual currencies in November 2013. The U.S. government claimed that bitcoin was used to facilitate payments related to Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections.
With bitcoin, on the other hand, the supply is tightly controlled by the underlying algorithm. A small number of new bitcoins trickle out every hour, and will continue to do so at a diminishing rate until a maximum of 21 million has been reached. This makes bitcoin more attractive as an asset – in theory, if demand grows and the supply remains the same, the value will increase.
Full clients verify transactions directly by downloading a full copy of the blockchain (over 150 GB As of January 2018). They are the most secure and reliable way of using the network, as trust in external parties is not required. Full clients check the validity of mined blocks, preventing them from transacting on a chain that breaks or alters network rules. Because of its size and complexity, downloading and verifying the entire blockchain is not suitable for all computing devices.
Bitmain acquired this mining facility in Inner Mongolia a couple years ago and has turned it into one of the most powerful money factories on the Bitcoin network. It quite literally metabolizes electricity into money. By my own calculations, the hardware on the grounds—some 21,000 computers—accounted for about 4 percent of all the computing power in the Bitcoin network when I visited.
More important, Nakamoto built the system to make the blocks themselves more difficult to mine as more computer power flows into the network. That is, as more miners join, or as existing miners buy more servers, or as the servers themselves get faster, the bitcoin network automatically adjusts the solution criteria so that finding those passwords requires proportionately more random guesses, and thus more computing power. These adjustments occur every 10 to 14 days, and are programmed to ensure that bitcoin blocks are mined no faster than one roughly every 10 minutes. The presumed rationale is that by forcing miners to commit more computing power, Nakamoto was making miners more invested in the long-term survival of the network.
But here, Carlson and his fellow would-be crypto tycoons confronted the bizarre, engineered obstinacy of bitcoin, which is designed to make life harder for miners as time goes by. For one, the currency’s mysterious creator (or creators), known as “Satoshi Nakamoto,” programmed the network to periodically—every 210,000 blocks, or once every four years or so—halve the number of bitcoins rewarded for each mined block. The first drop, from 50 coins to 25, came on November 28, 2012, which the faithful call “Halving Day.” (It has since halved again, to 12.5, and is expected to drop to 6.25 in June 2020.)
Because the reward for mining blocks is so high (currently at 12.5 BTC), the competition to win that reward is also fierce among miners. At any moment, hundreds of thousands of supercomputers all around the world are competing to mine the next block and win that reward. In fact, according to howmuch.com, ” the total power of all the computers mining Bitcoin is over 1000 times more powerful than the world’s top 500 supercomputers combined”.
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A few years ago, CPU and GPU mining became completely obsolete when FPGAs came around. An FPGA is a Field Programmable Gate Array, which can produce computational power similar to most GPUs, while being far more energy‐efficient than graphics cards. Due to its mining efficiency, and ability to consume relatively lesser energy, many miners shifted to the use of FPGAs.
To lower the costs, bitcoin miners have set up in places like Iceland where geothermal energy is cheap and cooling Arctic air is free. Bitcoin miners are known to use hydroelectric power in Tibet, Quebec, Washington (state), and Austria to reduce electricity costs. Miners are attracted to suppliers such as Hydro Quebec that have energy surpluses. According to a University of Cambridge study, much of bitcoin mining is done in China, where electricity is subsidized by the government.
Bitcoin is pseudonymous, meaning that funds are not tied to real-world entities but rather bitcoin addresses. Owners of bitcoin addresses are not explicitly identified, but all transactions on the blockchain are public. In addition, transactions can be linked to individuals and companies through "idioms of use" (e.g., transactions that spend coins from multiple inputs indicate that the inputs may have a common owner) and corroborating public transaction data with known information on owners of certain addresses. Additionally, bitcoin exchanges, where bitcoins are traded for traditional currencies, may be required by law to collect personal information.
Then two things happen. New transactions are added to the Bitcoin blockchain ledger, and the winning miner is rewarded with newly minted bitcoins. The miner also collects small fees that users voluntarily tack onto their transactions as a way of pushing them to the head of the line. It’s ultimately an exchange of electricity for coins, mediated by a whole lot of computing power. The probability of an individual miner winning the lottery depends entirely on the speed at which that miner can generate new hashes relative to the speed of all other miners combined. In this way, the lottery is more like a raffle, where the more tickets you buy in comparison to everyone else makes it more likely that your name will be pulled out of the hat.
An ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) is a microchip designed for a special application, such as a particular kind of transmission protocol or a hand-held computer. An ASIC is a chip designed specifically to do only one task. Unlike FPGAs, an ASIC cannot be repurposed to perform other tasks. An ASIC designed to mine Bitcoins can only mine Bitcoins and will only ever mine Bitcoins. The inflexibility of an ASIC is offset by the fact that it offers a 100x increase in hashing power compared to the CPU and GPUs, while reducing power consumption compared to all the previous technologies.
One of Bitcoin’s most appealing features is its ruthless verification process, which greatly minimizes the risk of fraud. Since Bitcoin is decentralized, volunteers—referred to as “miners”—constantly verify and update the blockchain. Once a specific amount of transactions are verified, another block is added to the blockchain and business continues per usual.
In order to have an edge in the mining competition, the hardware used for Bitcoin mining has undergone various developments, starting with the use the CPU. The CPU can perform many different types of calculations including Bitcoin mining. In the beginning, mining with a CPU was the only way to mine Bitcoins and was done using the original Satoshi client. Unfortunately, with the nature of most CPU in terms of multi-tasking, and its optimization for task switching, miners innovated on many fronts and for years now, CPU mining has been relatively futile.
The controller on the S9 has a red light that goes off when it detects a malfunction. Technicians like Zhang are on hand to scan the racks for sick rigs. When they find one, they pull it out and send it to a house on the factory lot where other technicians diagnose the problem, fix it, and get the machine back on the line. Sometimes it’s a failed chip. Other times it’s a burned-out fan. If the problem is more serious, then the rig gets sent all the way to Bitmain’s labs in Shenzhen in southeast China for a proper rebuild. Every moment the rigs spend unplugged, potential revenue slips away.
How do they find this number? By guessing at random. The hash function makes it impossible to predict what the output will be. So, miners guess the mystery number and apply the hash function to the combination of that guessed number and the data in the block. The resulting hash has to start with a pre-established number of zeroes. There's no way of knowing which number will work, because two consecutive integers will give wildly varying results. What's more, there may be several nonces that produce the desired result, or there may be none (in which case the miners keep trying, but with a different block configuration).