All PCs and laptops have a Central Processing Unit, or CPU, in charge of most of their processing and computing tasks. Many modern computers also have one or more Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) on board. These specialized processors are traditionally devoted to displaying functions, including rendering images, animations, and video for a computer’s screen.
A number of characteristics make GPUs highly effective in these functions, some of which also means they can be put to work in different ways. One area in which GPUs are invaluable involves Bitcoin mining, which has become the default method of generating this leading cryptocurrency. That’s made GPUs very important to a whole new set of users…
An introduction to Bitcoin mining
In the absence of traditional printing presses, Bitcoin mining is how new coins are created. It’s called mining because it has some similarities to the mining of traditional commodities, in that it’s time and labor intensive, and slowly makes new resources available to those taking part. However, that’s where the similarities end. The process of Bitcoin mining is actually a process of updating a ledger of Bitcoin transactions. The ledger is known as the blockchain, for the simple reason that it is a long chain made up of blocks. Mining for Bitcoin involves trying to find a new block to add to the chain.
Bitcoin miners find those new blocks by guessing a random number, and that number solves an equation generated by the system. When a block is found, the miner is rewarded with a bounty of Bitcoins. At the time of writing, one block is worth 12.5 Bitcoin, and Bitcoin mining rules aim to ensure a steady flow of new currency into circulation. That means that the difficulty of making a correct guess and finding a new block fluctuates, depending on the number of Bitcoin miners in the network: the more there are, the greater the difficulty of mining.
Using GPUs to mine Bitcoin
The competitive difficulty is exactly why people began using GPUs to mine Bitcoin. When Bitcoin was first getting started there weren’t many miners, so mining difficulty was very low. As such, the amount of processing power required was low enough that normal CPUs could handle the task.
With Bitcoin now a globally traded commodity, mining difficulty has spiked. Far more processing power is needed, and almost all miners are now using GPUs to mine Bitcoin. This is because GPUs often have at least five times the processing power of CPUs, with some having up to 800 times as much power. At the most basic level, this means that GPUs can guess far more numbers than CPUs over the same period of time.
The best way to understand the difference is through an analogy. A CPU is like an executive or manager, responsible for high-level decisions and complex tasks. The volume of work it gets through, however, is comparatively small. By comparison, a GPU could be compared to the workforce. A collection of workers can get through a far greater volume of work, even if
they’re not as skilled. Indeed, GPUs are well-suited to simple but repetitive tasks like video processing, where the GPU is constantly being told to do the same thing to large groups of pixels on the screen.
This aptitude for performing a high volume of repetitive tasks translates perfectly to Bitcoin mining since only one digit of the number changes for each guess. It’s a very simple yet repetitive and lengthy process, which is why using GPUs to mine Bitcoin has become the norm rather than the exception…