When you pay someone in bitcoin, you set in motion a process of escalating, energy-intensive complexity. Your payment is basically an electronic message, which contains the complete lineage of your bitcoin, along with data about who you’re sending it to (and, if you choose, a small processing fee). That message gets converted by encryption software into a long string of letters and numbers, which is then broadcast to every miner on the bitcoin network (there are tens of thousands of them, all over the world). Each miner then gathers your encrypted payment message, along with any other payment messages on the network at the time (usually in batches of around 2,000), into what’s called a block. The miner then uses special software to authenticate each payment in the block—verifying, for example, that you owned the bitcoin you’re sending, and that you haven’t already sent that same bitcoin to someone else.
Bitcoin is a digital asset designed to work in peer-to-peer transactions as a currency. Bitcoins have three qualities useful in a currency, according to The Economist in January 2015: they are "hard to earn, limited in supply and easy to verify". However, as of 2015 bitcoin functions more as a payment processor than as a currency.
And, inevitably, there was a growing tension with the utilities, which were finally grasping the scale of the miners’ ambitions. In 2014, the public utility district in Chelan County received requests from would-be miners for a total of 220 megawatts—a startling development in a county whose 70,000 residents were then using barely 200 megawatts. Similar patterns were emerging across the river in neighboring Douglas and Grant counties, where power is also cheap.
A few miles from the shuttered carwash, David Carlson stands at the edge of a sprawling construction site and watches workers set the roof on a Giga Pod, a self-contained crypto mine that Carlson designed to be assembled in a matter of weeks. When finished, the prefabricated wood-frame structure, roughly 12 by 48 feet, will be equipped with hundreds of high-speed servers that collectively draw a little over a megawatt of power and, in theory, will be capable of producing around 80 bitcoins a month. Carlson himself won’t be the miner; his company, Giga-Watt, will run the pod as a hosting site for other miners. By summer, Giga-Watt expects to have 24 pods here churning out bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies, most of which use the same computing-intensive, cryptographically secured protocol called the blockchain. “We’re right where the rubber hits the road with blockchain,” Carlson shouts as we step inside the project’s first completed pod and stand between the tall rack of toaster-size servers and a bank of roaring cooling fans. The main use of blockchain technology now is to keep a growing electronic ledger of every single bitcoin transaction ever made. But many miners see it as the record-keeping mechanism of the future. “We’re where the blockchain goes from that virtual concept to something that’s real in the world,” says Carlson, “something that somebody had to build and is actually running.”
Lightweight clients consult full clients to send and receive transactions without requiring a local copy of the entire blockchain (see simplified payment verification – SPV). This makes lightweight clients much faster to set up and allows them to be used on low-power, low-bandwidth devices such as smartphones. When using a lightweight wallet, however, the user must trust the server to a certain degree, as it can report faulty values back to the user. Lightweight clients follow the longest blockchain and do not ensure it is valid, requiring trust in miners.
Gradually, people moved to GPU mining. A GPU (graphics processing unit) is a special component added to computers to carry out more complex calculations. GPUs were originally intended to allow gamers to run computer games with intense graphics requirements. Because of their architecture, they became popular in the field of cryptography, and around 2011, people also started using them to mine bitcoins. For reference, the mining power of one GPU equals that of around 30 CPUs.
In a Ponzi scheme using bitcoins, the Bitcoin Savings and Trust promised investors up to 7% weekly interest, and raised at least 700,000 bitcoins from 2011 to 2012. In July 2013, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charged the company and its founder in 2013 "with defrauding investors in a Ponzi scheme involving bitcoin". In September 2014 the judge fined Bitcoin Savings & Trust and its owner $40 million.
The process of mining bitcoins works like a lottery. Bitcoin miners are competing to produce hashes—alphanumeric strings of a fixed length that are calculated from data of an arbitrary length. They’re producing the hashes from a combination of three pieces of data: new blocks of Bitcoin transactions; the last block on the blockchain; and a random number. These are collectively referred to as the “block header” for the current block. Each time miners perform the hash function on the block header with a new random number, they get a new result. To win the lottery, a miner must find a hash that begins with a certain number of zeroes. Just how many zeroes are required is a shifting parameter determined by how much computing power is attached to the Bitcoin network. Every two weeks, on average, the mining software automatically readjusts the number of leading zeros needed—the difficulty level—by looking at how fast new blocks of Bitcoin transactions were added. The algorithm is aiming for a latency of 10 minutes between blocks. When miners boost the computing power on the network, they temporarily increase the rate of block creation. The network senses the change and then ratchets up the difficulty level. When a miner’s computer finds a winning hash, it broadcasts the block header to its next peers in the Bitcoin network, which check it and then propagate it further.
How hard are the puzzles involved in mining? Well, that depends on how much effort is being put into mining across the network. The difficulty of the mining can be adjusted, and is adjusted by the protocol every 2016 blocks, or roughly every 2 weeks. The difficulty adjusts itself with the aim of keeping the rate of block discovery constant. Thus if more computational power is employed in mining, then the difficulty will adjust upwards to make mining harder. And if computational power is taken off of the network, the opposite happens. The difficulty adjusts downward to make mining easier.
Illiquidity. This is mostly moot due to Bitcoin’s $47 market cap but it still makes users sweat. It’s highly unlikely that Bitcoin’s price would plummet and you’d be unable to take action, but it’s still unsettling. As more investors invest, however, illiquidity becomes a negligible risk, as there will likely always be a buyer for Bitcoins waiting.
So that’s Bitcoin mining in a nutshell. It’s called mining because of the fact that this process helps “mine” new Bitcoins from the system. But if you think about it, the mining part is just a by-product of the transaction confirmation process. So the name is a bit misleading, since the main goal of mining is to maintain the ledger in a decentralized manner.
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Bitmain gained an edge by supplying a superior product in large quantities, a feat that has eluded every other company in the industry. The Ordos facility is stuffed almost exclusively with Bitmain’s best performing rig, the Antminer S9. According to company specs, the S9 is capable of churning out 14 terahashes, or 14 trillion hashes, every second while consuming around 0.1 joules of energy per gigahash for a total of about 1,400 watts (about as much as a microwave oven consumes).
Ledger’s main competitor in the market space is the original Trezor hardware wallet. One of the key advantages of the Ledger over the Trezor is the freedom to create your own unique passphrases. Both the Ledger and the Trezor require 20 passphrases for recovery and reset purposes; however, the Trezor package sends the user a random list. The Ledger gives the user the freedom to create their own. Additionally, if aesthetics matter to you, the Ledger sports an arguably sleeker design than the Trezor.
A Bitcoin wallet is also referred to as a digital Wallet. Establishing such a wallet is an important step in the process of obtaining Bitcoins. Just as Bitcoins are the digital equivalent of cash, a Bitcoin wallet is analogous to a physical wallet. But instead of storing Bitcoins literally, what is stored is a lot of relevant information like the secure private key used to access Bitcoin addresses and carry out transactions. The four main types of wallet are desktop, mobile, web and hardware.
The best mining sites were the old fruit warehouses—the basin is as famous for its apples as for its megawatts—but those got snapped up early. So Miehe, a tall, gregarious 38-year-old who would go on to set up a string of mines here, learned to look for less obvious solutions. He would roam the side streets and back roads, scanning for defunct businesses that might have once used a lot of power. An old machine shop, say. A closed-down convenience store. Or this: Miehe slows the Land Rover and points to a shuttered carwash sitting forlornly next to a Taco Bell. It has the space, he says. And with the water pumps and heaters, “there’s probably a ton of power distributed not very far from here,” Miehe tells me. “That could be a bitcoin mine.”
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Hardware wallets are by far the most secure kind of Bitcoin wallet, as they store Bitcoins on a physical piece of equipment, generally plugged into a computer via a USB port. They are all but immune to virus attacks and very few instances of Bitcoin theft have been reported. These devices are the only Bitcoin wallets which aren't free, and they often cost $100 to $200.
When it comes to using cryptocurrencies, if security dominates your every thought, then the DigitalBitbox is the hardware wallet that you are looking for. It is exceptionally easy to engage with and it utilizes open source applications for Linus, Mac, and Windows. The only real downside for prospective users is that for all intents it is currently restricted to Bitcoin. Otherwise, it novel new platform that offers solid functionality and comes at a very competitive price.
These dynamics have resulted in a race among miners to amass the fastest, most energy-efficient chips. And the demand for faster equipment has spawned a new industry devoted entirely to the computational needs of Bitcoin miners. Until late 2013, generic graphics cards and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) were powerful enough to put you in the race. But that same year companies began to sell computer chips, called application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), which are specifically designed for the task of computing the Bitcoin hashing algorithm. Today, ASICs are the standard technology found in every large-scale facility, including the mining farm in Ordos. When Bitmain first started making ASICs in 2013, the field was thick with competitors—BitFury, a multinational ASIC maker; KnCMiner in Stockholm; Butterfly Labs in the United States; Canaan Creative in Beijing; and about 20 other companies spread around China.
Computing power is often bundled together or "pooled" to reduce variance in miner income. Individual mining rigs often have to wait for long periods to confirm a block of transactions and receive payment. In a pool, all participating miners get paid every time a participating server solves a block. This payment depends on the amount of work an individual miner contributed to help find that block.