In a world where ASICs are slowly overtaking GPU mining, an alternative to ASIC mining was born. We are talking about Field Programmable Gate Arrays, or shortly FPGA. Those magic pieces of electronic combine what we love the most in GPUs and ASICs. The only issue here is that as for today, those boards are limited and if you want to get into the FPGA mining train, you gotta do it about… now.
Disclaimer: this post is not sponsored by any company nor it has any referral links.
Let’s take a look why FPGA is interesting for mining, shall we?
The Two Main Issues FPGA Are Meant to Solve
Cryptocurrencies are volatile and unstable. The world of cryptos can be compared to a stormy ocean – if you want to surf it you gotta be ready to maneuver a lot.
Back when CPU or GPU mining was profitable for most popular coins, you always had the option to quickly adapt to the crypto market. As soon as a coin would fall, you could instantly launch different mining software and start mining a more profitable coin. We have been all jumping from Ethereum to Monero to Zcash, back and forth, depending on the coin profitability.
Nowadays with ASICs storming the mining pools for most coins, there is only one strategy – choose a coin, buy an ASIC and pray that it pays off in time. GPU mining is still an option too but the amount of coins you can mine is rather limited and many people find it unsatisfactory.
The issue with ASICs is that they offer zero flexibility when it comes to which coin you can mine. An ASIC is hard-wired to mine one algorithm only. If for some reason the algorithm becomes unpopular or unprofitable to mine your ASIC becomes a doorstop. Not that I’m against doorstops, though paying a couple grands for one is a bit too much for me.
What’s the Third Option?
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There is always a third option, right? If only there were a piece of hardware that would combine the flexibility of GPUs and the hashing power of an ASIC… everyone would be using that hardware instead then, right?
Right. FPGA is that exact hardware and it is the new favorite in the mining community. No wonder why the demand for that hardware is huge.
FPGA have been around since 1982. They have been and still are heavily used in science, vehicle modeling and even the military.
The first manufacturer of those devices was an American technology company called Xilinx. Later, another American company called Altera (now a part of Intel) has joined the industry and has been the main Xilinx competitor since then.
The introduction and development of FPGA circuits has been welcomed very well in many industries and the demand for such hardware and technology is still booming. For example in 2013, the market size for FPGA boards was $5.4 billion and it is estimated to hit the $9.8 billion mark in 2020.
I will dive into the technical details of FPGA in a bit.
Let me first answer this question: “if FPGA are so great, why wouldn’t people use those for crypto mining since the beginning?”
Let’s start off by mentioning that since Bitcoin became somewhat popular, people have been trying to mine it with FPGA. There are still people from the mining community who have older FPGA models in their farms.
There are two reasons why FPGA boards have never really made it to the masses until today.
The First reason is that due to their flexibility and architecture, FPGA boards are not easy to set up. They can be programmed to mine anything. This is good, though it also means that in order to use a FPGA board you have got to know how to program it on a deep level.
Unlike a GPU that works in a certain way and all you can do is to tweak the clocks, maybe use some custom BIOS and mining software, an FPGA board has got to be programmed from zero in order for it to mine a certain algo. To make things worse, you got to write the code in Verilog or VHDL language – neither Python nor C++ works.
Since only dedicated programmers are capable of doing that, it would take time for a team to show up and do the work. Then, those programmers would have to make a business model to sell the programs to the public and so on. This would eventually happen but then reason #2 has shown up before the community has had the chance to work on FPGA.
The Reason #2 is the creation of the first ASIC for mining cryptos. Unlike FPGA, an ASIC is plug and play hardware. Anyone can use it; obviously, this alone was the decisive factor. Plus, there were a lot of alternatives to ASIC mining too – nerds like me and probably you always have had the option to use GPU rigs and mine the lesser coins.
Now that ASICs are dominating the mining pools and GPUs are kinda falling behind, FPGA are becoming more and more interesting for the average miner.
A FPGA is a piece of hardware that is very similar to an ASIC with one exception. An ASIC is a chip that has been hardwired to perform onetype of calculation (for example, to mine Equihash). A FPGA is a chip that can be reprogrammed at will to perform any kind of operations. In the field of mining, you could reconfigure your FPGA from Cryptonight to Lyra2z mining in a split second.
CPUs and GPUs can do that too, though for several reasons FPGA are way faster. There are several reasons for that but I am not diving into the why’s here. I will however provide some links with additional info below.
What we do know is that certainFPGA boards perform 3x to 100x times better than a GPU while having the same power draw. Depending on the algorithm, FPGA might or might not slightly fall behind ASICs. We will get back to it later.
Upsides of FPGA
+ Complete flexibility when it comes to minable algorithms – no soft forks can affect your mining as long as you update your FPGA bitstream.
+ Tremendous power efficiency compared to GPUs
Downsides of FPGA
+ FPGA have to be plugged into operational computers, just like GPUs
+ Not available to the mainstream for now (there are some exceptions though, which is why this article exists, more on that below)
+ Are quite pricey compared to GPUs
+ Can be slightly outperformed by ASICs depending on the algorithm
Yeah, FPGAs have their downsides too. If those are not a deal breaker for you then let’s move on.
The Bitstream is basically the program written on a low-level programming language (Verilog or VHDL) that tells the FPGA what to do. If you want to mine a specific algorithm you have got to have a bitstream that tells the FPGA how to mine that specific algo. Bitstreams are loaded to the FPGA once the system boots.
The bitstream is loaded into the volatile FPGA RAM memory. Yeah, that same DDR4 memory – the FPGA model people use for mining has got 64GB of it. This huge amount of RAM allows the FPGA to store hundreds of bitstreams and switch between those in fractions of a second.
As you probably anticipate, this functionality allows an FPGA to mine algorithms such as Timetravel10, X11Evo, X16R and X16S that require the chip to switch between various “lesser” hashing algorithms every few minutes.
While the bitstream can be changed in a fraction of a second, the board can still mine only one algorithm at a time with a couple rare exceptions.
The Initial Offer
Since about a month and a half, three members of the mining community have been working hard on creating their first bitstreams to allow certain FPGA models (the Xilinx VU9P, to be precise) to mine different algos.
Today, that team now has a store where they have posted the first boards, as well as a Bitcointalk page. One of the team members is GPUhoarder, well-known for his project Squirrels Research Lab, among others.
Those guys basically take all-purpose Xilinx VU9P FPGA boards and modify those to make them fit for crypto mining. The “vanilla” Xilinx VU9P comes with pretty bad cooling, so FPGA Land has to manually do the required tweaks and enhancements.
Thanks to their partnership with Xilinx, they give us the opportunity to buy those boards individually. Plus, the mods they do (improved heatsink and cooling) do not interfere with the official Xilinx warranty.
In addition to that, they are working on an ecosystem surrounding the cards with the required software tools, support structure and so on. This will allow both the initial developers and the community to write their own bitstreams and post them in an encrypted blockchain, only accessible to people who have purchased the “mining edition” FPGA.
Then, anyone can create bitstreams for existing mining algos and Zetheron (name of the company) will be collecting a fixed fee on behalf of the developers. This will ensure
safety to the developers of bitstreams – they will get paid for their work and
no entry fee for FPGA owners – you pay only if the bitstream you have downloaded works
Plus, the access to a diversity of community-made bitstream will certainly guarantee that we will be able to mine virtually any algo and fork we want.
As for today, Zethereon has working bitstream for Cryptonote and Lyra2z algos. “The current plan is to release approximately one algorithm per month, until all major algorithms in the above table have been covered.” – Zetheron writes. Here is a table of all the planned coins for the VU9P FPGA.
This means that thanks to the work those guys did, we will now have a seamless, pretty much plug-and-play experience when using our FPGA boards. The ecosystem Zetheron is creating will give us all the bitstream solutions we need to mine any popular algorithm we want without the need to know anything about programming. Plus, developers will be motivated to push the plank higher and create better bitstreams.
Ok, so here is the catch though. The boards they have offered to the public have been sold in a matter of hours. Apparently, the idea of having a board that would combine the flexibility of a GPU and the power of an ASIC was too good to be missed.
Where to Get FPGA Boards Now?
Since FPGA land is out of stock, the other option we have is Mineority.
Mineority has been founded by OhGodACompany – a team of programmers who have made the ETHnlargementPill and other well-known software for mining. They have further teamed up with Stayfirst, Mind Dev and Di Support to make Mineority possible.
In their official website, Mineority states that they are “a platform for the purchasing, optimization, hosting and trading of GPU cards.”
Let me elaborate on that.
Mineority is a company that specializes in trading mining hardware. They also produce their own custom mining-oriented cards in China and sell those to the public. What makes Mineority different from other companies is that they also offer cloud mining… with a twist.
For a fee, you can choose to buy your card and leave it mining for you on one of Mineority’s facilities in the US or Europe. You can lend a spot in their mining farm for up to three years, after which your card will be shipped to you. Or, you can ask them to ship the card straight away to you as soon as you purchase it. There is also an option to resell the card in the Mineority marketplace but I will not dive into that here.
They have a system that ensures that you are receiving the card you have bought – the details and unique number of your card and chip are attached to a non-fungible ERC-721 token – you can always verify whether the details match.
Not long ago, they have started to resell the Xilinx V9UP card, modified to be “superior amongst competition for mining cryptocurrencies”. This version of the card includes the required 64GB of DDR4 RAM installed and a custom cooling solution that allows the card to use all of its computational power in mining (the original Xilinx V9UP can not mine at 100% intensity without overheating). It also gives the owner access to the constantly growing ecosystem of bitstreams for mining different algos.
Bad news is that the stock of those cards is limited and it might run dry in a couple of days. If you want to order this batch you might want to do it fast. There will be more batches in the future I’m sure, so those of you who are more cautious might want to wait a little until the masses will get their miners first. Less risks means less rewards though, so everyone decides what is best for them.
The estimated shipping date is August 2018. Mineority states that they offer 90 days warranty after the card has been shipped to the customer.
Mineority is not as well-known as Bitmain is. They have sold several batches of cards to people from the community, though as for today, we can only trust the independent reviews on Bitcointalk forums.
Will the BCU1525 cards arrive as expected and hash as advertised? It’s up to you to decide whether to trust that company and give them a chance. Again, they do have quite a name in the mining community so I would expect them to deliver as promised. That’s my personal opinion though – I am not endorsing them nor have I worked with them in the past.
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FPGA might bring the flexibility and the miners back to common folk like you and me. Yeah, the board is priced $3600 USD now but hey! If everything goes as planned, those boards will let us mine virtually any algorithm at any time. Unlike an ASIC that requires you to invest several grand into mining one single algorithm, FPGA hopefully will become the all-in-one universal mining solution (just like GPUs back in the day)
Anyway, I feel that I’ve been promoting FPGA enough in this article. I am not getting paid for this nor do I get any affiliate bonuses. Do your own research first and invest at your own risk. I did my best to resume everything I know about the topic so far. I might have oversimplified some aspects but hopefully what we have here was a good introduction to FPGA mining. I would love to know your thoughts in the comment section below.
Thank you for reading. As always, your comments, suggestions and questions are welcome.