The state of Bitcoin mining has been up in the air for some time now. Those with free or cheap electricity can still profitably mine with off-the-shelf video cards, but with difficulty skyrocketing the market has been largely shifting toward more power-efficient FPGAs. For those not in the know, an FPGA is a sort of customizable chip that can be reprogrammed to act like any other kind of chip. Since they’re explicitly programmed for the sole task of Bitcoin mining, in addition to other reasons, they can do the same work while consuming much less electricity – but a new challenger has loomed on the horizon for some time now: the Application-Specific Integrated Circuit – ASIC for short.
Whether you know it or not, you’re quite familiar with ASICs, they’re everywhere and in everything. Where an FPGA is programmable and can become anything, an ASIC is designed from the ground up explicitly for its one and only task – in this case, mining Bitcoins. As was explained to me some time ago by my fellow Bitcoin StackExchange moderator David Schwartz: “An FPGA is cheap in quantity one ($100-$300) but expensive in quantity 1,000 ($50,000-$3,000,000) … An ASIC is expensive in quantity one ($2,000,000) but cheap in quantity 100,000 ($5,000,000)” essentially ASICs are the smaller more efficient cousin of FPGAs that cost less per chip but have massive minimum order quantities – one needs truly deep pockets to bankroll an ASIC.
Now some time ago, Butterfly Labs (BFL), a well-known manufacturer of FPGA miners announced they were releasing an ASIC line. There are a lot of criticisms of BFL, some more valid than others, but let’s just say they’ve got a history of under-delivering on promises and horribly delayed shipping – to the point where many in the Bitcoin community doubt that a BFL ASIC is actually in the pipeline or if we’re all being scammed. For the purpose of this article, let’s assume we’re not being scammed, and BFL will deliver everything they’ve promised – here’s their intended lineup:
- BitForce Jalapeno
- BitForce Single SC
- BitForce Mini Rig
Now none of this is new information, I’m just reiterating the available information as a background for this: BFL now has competition. Yesterday, BTCFPGA.com announced their next generation of Bitcoin miners, featuring an ASIC of their own. Details are still forthcoming, and there are a few dissenting “pics/video or it didn’t happen” voices on the forums, but again, for the sake of argument let’s say they’ll deliver on their claims 100%. They only have a single offering:
- bASIC 4th Generation Bitcoin Mining Device
This device appears poised to compete with BFL’s BitForce Single SC unit. The new miners clock in at around $39.62 per GH/s compared to BFL’s $32.48, so BFL is still the cheaper option, but here are some considerations that might make the bASIC look a little more desireable:
- BFL is so back-ordered that a unit ordered today would likely not arrive until March of next year, the bASIC is just beginning pre-orders and BTCFPGA.com has a much better track record on delivery times.
- While the dollars-per-gigahash cost of the bASIC is higher, the total cost is lower by almost $230 – not chump change for folks like me who are drooling over BFL Jalapenos at $150 apiece and wishing we could afford the mid-grade unit.
- BTCFPGA.com has a track record of over-delivering on promises, BFL has a track record of under-delivering. Enough said?
- BFL has been very closed-box about everything they do, up to and including refusing to admit that the BFL single was FPGA-based until someone desoldered a chip, hooked up JTAG headers and publicly proved they were – BTCFPGA.com has promised to make their solution open-source – granted it’s an ideological reason, not an economical one, but ideology has always been an important part of the Bitcoin project.
Regardless of which system you buy (or if you choose to buy one at all) if all the chatter is true, this bodes well for Bitcoin – multiple competing ASIC projects can only do good things for the security of the Bitcoin network – anyone claiming otherwise is probably a GPU miner about to lose their investment.
Update: As always, there is more than one way to skin a cat, and there are some other ASIC projects on the horizon. BitcoinTalk user friedcat has an ASIC co-op setting up shop, so no pre-orders – at least not in the traditional sense. Also, BitcoinTalk user Tycho appears to have an ASIC line of some kind as well, though I’m a bit sketchy on the details, since I don’t speak any Russian. In any case, there is even more competition on the horizon for BFL which is a good thing for the Bitcoin project, in this author’s opinion.