There could be a new sheriff coming to town. Various FPGA miner board designs are getting shipped and the metrics promised are real. With performance measured in terms of megahashes per Joule (Mhash/J), FPGAs mine in the range of 20 Mhash/J whereas the most efficient GPUs mine at just a bit over 2 Mhash/J.
Mining operators that are in areas with high electric rates are likely to be the most interested in these new boards since mining with GPUs is barely above break-even levels for many of them currently.
Other miners, particularly those mining from their residences, would like to expand their mining endeavors but are constrained to maximum current levels available from the electrical circuit that reaches where the mining hardware can be located. Adding a single FPGA board could double the typical hobbyist-level mining operator’s capacity but would increase power consumption by just 10%.
The photo for this post shows boards getting tested, presumably before being shipped out to customers.
While FPGA mining technology has now reached the “now shipping in limited quantities” state the buyers will still primarily consist of the bleeding-edge adopters. What isn’t known is how long these custom designs will survive while hashing 24/7 in varying environs.
It isn’t known if there are designs from other sources coming that bring even greater performance. An ASIC design could be dramatically even more efficient and if announced could be a major blow to these fledgling FPGA technologies
What does appear to be happening though is that these FPGA designs are the writing on the wall for the power hungry GPU (as far as being used for Bitcoin mining). Those miners considering further investment in GPU hardware might want to keep a close eye on these FGPA developments.
There was a similar disruptive event in Bitcoin’s history in the second half of 2010 when the transformation from CPU mining to GPU mining took only a matter of months. The difference though was that the mining community was relatively tiny then and many techies already had GPUs for gaming purposes or could order additional GPUs from Amazon and NewEgg, for instance.
A GPU glut could result now though. At least one large mining operation liquidated its equipment recently though it took only a few days for a single buyer to emerge to buy the entire lot. The resale value for used GPUs is still healthy, particularly for those GPUs that have value in mining. If these GPUs become unprofitable for mining even then demand could collapse causing a significant price drop.
With less than two million of the easy bitcoins (issued 50 at a time, about 7,200 BTC per day) remaining, GPU miners barely pushing break-even levels today might want to reassess their plans for the rest of 2012. The landscape is likely to change.
Written on 11 Mar 2012.