Are ASICs a real problem for Ethereum miners?

ASICs are coming to the Ethereum mining industry, and small independent miners are virtually doomed. 2Ether has come up with a solution — the third element in our dynamic block reward system. But before we explain it, we’ll have to talk about Ethereum ASICs.

If you don’t know that much about Ethereum, you might be surprised to learn that ASICs for mining ETH actually exist. Isn’t Ethereum’s algorithm — Ethash — supposed to be ASIC-resistant? If it isn’t then why is everyone still mining using GPUs?

Well, Ethash is indeed much less ASIC-friendly than the algorithm of Bitcoin. It doesn’t mean that you can’t make ASIC chips for mining ether, though. It’s just that it’s difficult to make ASICs that would be much more efficient than graphic cards (GPUs).

The efficiency of a piece of mining hardware is calculated as a ratio of power (measured in kilowatt hours) to hash power (measured in megahash per second). So for example, if you have two devices that both produce 50 MH/s, but one of them consumes 1 kWh, and the other consumes 2 kWh, then the first device is twice more efficient.

ASICs cost a lot of money to design, and their market price is high. So it only makes sense to buy an ASIC if it gives you a serious advantage over other types of hardware. You should also keep in mind that if the algorithm changes, you’ll need to replace your ASIC with a new model. Such chips are built to carry out one task and one task only — that’s why they are called application-specific integrated circuits (that’s how the acronym is deciphered).

Now, the first ASICs for Ethereum came out in April 2018, and they were more than a curious gadget than a serious rival to GPUs. Vitalik Buterin said that they were not a threat and the best action would be no action.

But the situation changed. Soon, there were ASICs twice as efficient as the best graphic cards. Still, it wasn’t enough to justify the price difference.

Finally, in late September 2019, Chinese manufacturer and distributor of mining hardware Canaan announced that it would start selling a new ASIC that is 5 to 7 times more efficient than the leading GPU models. Its W/MHs ratio is just 0.68–7.5 times better compared to AMD Vega 64 and 5.3 times better than AMD RX570.

What does this mean for Ethereum mining? When such models go on sale, whoever can afford them will be able to extract very high profits. GPU miners will be at a disadvantage. And if you have only a small rig with a couple of GPUs at home, your prospects are grim.

You might ask: can’t Ethereum devs do something — say, change the algorithm? Bitcoin algo changes regularly, after all. Unfortunately, Ethereum works differently, so every algorithm change would require a hard fork — with all the consequences it entails. The devs have been talking about introducing a new consensus protocol called ProgPOW (Programmable Proof of Work). It would make the algorithm change regularly and ensure ASIC resistance. But Vitalik Buterin believes that the real goal is a switch to Proof of Stake, not tweaking PoW.

What other options are there to protect small miners from the upcoming wave of ASICs? In our next post, we’ll explain how 2Ether plans to deal with this problem.

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