A brief introspection of crypto mining hardware
In the infancy era of computers, Gordon Moore, the noted American engineer famously said the number of transistors sitting on a silicon chip would get doubled each year, thereby paving the way for exponential growth for PC hardware. The Moore’s law, as it is called was revised to an extent but the overall theory was not discarded. It has been referred in computer science numerous times since that time. If you look at the growth and evolution of Bitcoin mining, a similar principle could be observed. What started as individual users using mining applications from their home PCs evolved into professional teams running mining operations using specialized and expensive rigs and industrial scale hardware setups!
The evolution of Bitcoin mining hardware:
The first stage: CPU based mining (home based)
The evolution of bitcoin mining hardware is no less stellar than the rapid evolution of PC hardware sector! Back in 2009, when the mass perception about blockchain and crypto currency was hazy and bitcoin mining was restricted to a niche circle of users, the devices used for mining were simple laptops and desktops. The first generation of Bitcoin miners used multi-core CPUs to generate BTC at a modest rate of 50 for each block. The hardship of mining was quite low at that time. The number of participants was also low. So, it was easy to mine bitcoin from a PC having decent spec.
The second stage: era of GPUs (2010 onwards)
As Bitcoin became more well known and awareness about crypto currency technologies started growing, the mining hardware started evolving too. In late 2010, the code required for mining bitcoin using GPUs was unveiled to the users. With time, mining difficulties grew and so the need to use more specific and dedicated hardware was felt.
The miners who were already mining Bitcoin started adding GPUs to the hardware setup they had. This was necessary to boost the mining prowess. It is a fact that the GPUs possess better processing capabilities since they can hash better and faster than a typical CPUs. Mining bitcoin using a single GPU was not hard and required little technical skill. However, things started changing once again and difficulty in mining was experienced soon after. The seasoned miners felt the need for more processing power to mine bitcoins.
FPGA: the third stage
After trying their hands at using multiple GPU based setups to mine bitcoin, the dedicated miners felt the need for a more powerful and comprehensive solution. The Field-Programmable Gate Array was the successor to multi GPU setups for mining bitcoins. It started picking momentum in the sector by middle of 2011.
The launch of FPGA in mining Bitcoin marked a notable transition from large consumer applications hardware to specialized hardware setup to extract bitcoins quicker. FPGA, aka Field-Programmable Gate Array can be described as integrated circuit chip which is user configurable. Its features can also be utilized for other needs. Apart from Crypto mining, FPGAs have also been deployed to do medical imaging, signal processing etc. FPGA mining however did not reach mass scale. This is owing to its unsuitability for large mining operations. FPGAs are ideal for ASIC prototypes and small tests. While they are versatile, in large quantities, their energy consumption and cost make usage in bitcoin mining unprofitable. Besides, fast development of ASIC ensured FPGA did not get much chance for mass adoption in this sector.
The fourth stage: ASIC
ASIC denotes application-specific integrated circuit which is being used extensively for Bitcoin mining-globally. ASICs were not exactly developed for Bitcoin initially. The first generation ASIC was created back in the 1980s. It has been used extensively in the computing industry after that.
As cryptocurrency gained popularity and mining requirements became stringent, the ASIC manufacturers grabbed the opportunity. They started manufacturing ASIC units especially for mining bitcoin and other types of crypto currencies. ASIC manufacturers like Bitfury and Bitmain made equipments that became really popular with the seasoned miners. As a matter of fact, a dedicated Bitcoin ASIC can be up to 100000 times faster compared to a very powerful CPU- in calculating hashes. Since every blockchain is different and ASICs are made specialized for hashing one blockchain, technically an ASIC can be used to mine specific blockchain. This means buying a new ASIC will be required to mine separate blockchain networks.
Resistance to ASICs and an ongoing evolution
While the ASIC hardware equipment rules Bitcoin blockchain segment, other blockchain networks have resisted its growth. Ethereum, for example, came up with its much touted PoW consensus model which is ASIC-resistant. This basically means no ASIC equipment can be designed to mine Ethereum blockchain.
Ethereum, along with some other ASIC-resistant blockchains, describe ASICs as obstacles to the equitability and democratization, which are inherent traits in blockchain networks. ASICs are pretty costly and they also gobble up a lot of energy for running.
Mining hardware keeps evolving and ASICs will evolve too! In the next decade, some other technology may overtake the ASICs. It may so happen that newer generation ASIC rigs are developed in future which are capable of mining so called ASIC resistant crypto currencies.