The Rise of ASICs: a Step-by-Step History of Bitcoin Mining

While the evolution of bitcoin mining hardware has historically been the source of large miner efficiency gains, this may not be the case in the future, especially as technological innovations on the basis of hardware become fewer and farther between. The higher the market value of block rewards, the higher the payoff for innovations in mining technology that boost miner profit margins while decreasing operating costs. As the only miner on the bitcoin network at the time, Nakamoto didn’t need specialized equipment to launch the bitcoin blockchain. Over the past decade, the machines that maintain the Bitcoin network have undergone rapid technological development. The machines that maintain the Bitcoin network have undergone rapid technological development. Mining equipment is a fundamental feature of the success of the bitcoin network because these machines determine whether or not it is profitable for miners to do what they do – that is, process the calculations needed to embed blocks of transactions on the blockchain. Hardware needed to mine new coins evolved over time as new miners joined the Bitcoin network and started to compete for block rewards. Due to the lack of miner competition in bitcoin’s early days, the computational energy required to create new blocks and earn mining rewards could be easily processed on CPU devices.

Since 2015, chip size reduction in ASIC bitcoin mining devices has been slower and less dramatic than in 2013 and 2014. What’s more, since the first bitcoin ASIC miner there has not been a new technology to leapfrog mining efficiency gains in the same way GPU mining had for CPU mining or FPGA mining had for GPU mining. FPGAs require configuration on both a software and hardware level, meaning the devices must be programmed to run customized code, as well as architected to run that code efficiently. While Canaan Creative was the first bitcoin ASIC manufacturer, others such as Bitmain and MicroBT also came up with new versions of ASIC bitcoin mining devices with increasingly advanced hardware. While somewhat overlooked, the history of bitcoin mining equipment is also a key explanation for why the activity of mining has evolved over the years into a multi-billion dollar industry. Rakesh Kumar, associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois, believes a strong motivating factor of mining hardware evolution over the years since bitcoin’s creation has been the rising dollar value of bitcoin, which made mining an increasingly lucrative activity. He was able to create bitcoin blocks using an average personal computer.

The innovation of GPU mining, that is mining bitcoin on a GPU device, made producing bitcoin blocks and earning block rewards on average roughly six times more efficient according to analysis done by CEO of mining consultancy firm Navier, Josh Metnick. This meant that all hardware and software components of these ASIC devices came pre-designed and optimized to compute strictly those calculations necessary to create new bitcoin blocks. However, these devices are more labor-intensive to build. However, it is unclear what the next major leap in mining technology will look like. One of the most noticeable developments in ASIC mining technology since 2013 has been a steady reduction in chip size. Originally built for gaming applications, GPUs excel at computing simple mathematical operations in parallel, rather than one at a time, in order to generate thousands of time-sensitive image pixels. By the time the bitcoin price reached 10 cents in October 2010, the first mining device leveraging graphics processing units (GPUs) was developed.

According to cryptocurrency data provider Coin Metrics, bitcoin market price then appreciated in July to around 8 cents. According to Metnick’s calculations, FPGAs are able to compute the mathematical operations required to mine bitcoin twice as fast as the highest grade GPU. These efficiency gains were quickly overshadowed the following year, in 2011, when field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) were also re-modeled to mine bitcoin. Rather than repurposing the software and hardware parameters of existing machines, efforts to create an entirely new machine that would only mine bitcoin finally paid off. It is the ability to adjust hardware components on an FPGA that makes these types of devices better optimized for bitcoin mining than a GPU. Unlike CPUs, GPU devices are optimized to perform a narrow range of computational tasks. For these efficiency gains, an average GPU device costs only twice as much as the average CPU device. The significance of chip size comes back to mining efficiency. The size of ASIC chips which started off at a size of 130nm in 2013 has shrunk considerably to be as small as 7nm in the latest hardware models. In 2013, a China-based computer hardware manufacturer called Canaan Creative released the first set of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) for bitcoin mining.

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