After over three months of delays from all major competitors, it seems as though the race to develop the first ASIC-based Bitcoin mining computer is finally drawing to a close. Less than three weeks ago, Avalon ASIC announced a hard shipping deadline for themselves of January 19, and placed a countdown on their website. On December 28, another competitor, ASICMiner, published pictures of fully completed mining chips, and on January 3, their PR representative published a post on the Bitcointalk forums: “The samples passed all functionality tests. The power consumption is also within the expected range. And as our overclocking tests had shown, they still have a lot of potentials compared to our original spec. This means that the biggest risk of our project is gone and our NRE is a fruitful spend. The first production batch of chips will be out of the packaging service tomorrow. Our deploying is on its way.”
Butterfly Labs, the company that originally started the current rush toward ASIC development with its announcement in June, is intent not to fall behind. Today, Butterfly Labs is unveiling a prototype (pictured) of its ASIC miner at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where it is sharing a booth with BitPay. The device has an Android Nexus 7 tablet incorporated.
Out of the four major competitors, ASICMiner has a business model that is different from the others: while Butterfly Labs, Avalon and BTCFPGA are all seeking to make money by selling their ASICs, ASICMiner intends to keep all of its ASICs in-house, instead gaining the initial capital needed to develop their product by selling shares. The shares were originally released in August on the (now-defunct) Global Bitcoin Stock Exchange, opening up 7.5% of the company’s future profits to investors at a valuation of 40,000 BTC for the entire company. The offering was a success, selling out within days. However, the setup proved to be problematic when the GLBSE unexpectedly shut down, with the result that the company had no way of knowing who its investors were. ASICMiner did finally receive the shareholder database from the GLBSE in December, and shares will once again start trading and paying dividends on a yet-unspecified alternate platform soon.
As of today, the four main contenders in the race are:
- Avalon ASICs, offering 60 GH/s for $1,299. These are scheduled to come out on Jan 19, and Avalon stated on Jan 9 that this continues to be the expected deadline. Updates on Avalon can be found here.
- Butterfly Labs, offering the 60 GH/s Single SC for $1,299. These are likely to come out arund the same time as Avalon, although certainly not by the 14th.
- BTCPFGA’s bASIC, offering the 72 GH/s bASIC NextGen Bitcoin Miner for $1,069. Unfortunately, BTCFPGA has been suffering serious delays, and its projected shipping data now appears to be the second half of March.
- ASICMiner, not offering any physical product, but expected to contribute at least 2.8 terahashes, and likely more, to the 23-terahash Bitcoin network.
One positive outcome of this stiff competition is that it significantly reduces the chance of any attacks on the Bitcoin network during the transition to ASICs over the next few months. Three months ago, when Butterfly Labs’ Josh Zerlan was asked why he chose the business model of selling his products as opposed to simply mining with them himself, he replied: “Why don’t we mine with our own equipment? Because we believe the best way to secure bitcoin and help it to succeed is to get as much product out to as many people as widely as possible. That makes it exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, for any individual, corporation or hostile government to destabilize and wreck Bitcoin from within.” When he said this, however, almost everyone was fully expecting that Butterfly Labs would be the first to come out with ASIC hardware, and have a monopoly over it for possibly even over a month, and so the worry that Butterfly Labs would attempt to use its mining power to attack the network was prevalent. Now, however, there are a number of providers, all coming out with ASICs around the same time.
Thus, neither Butterfly Labs nor Avalon, BTCFPGA or ASICMiner will have a particularly long window of time within which to build up enough hashing power to attempt a 51% attack.
For those who are interested in seeing when ASICs start coming online in significant numbers, the best place to watch is the Bitcoin network charts at Bitcoin Watch. Once Butterfly, Avalon and BTFPGA customers and ASICMiner turn their entire first batch of computers on, the network hashrate is expected to skyrocket. ASIC mining computers are ten times more efficient than the semi-specialized FPGA machines that came before them, and even more efficient than GPUs. By the time the dust settles, we may be looking at hash rates well in excess of 100 terahashes per second – making what is already the most powerful distributed computing network ever to have existed even faster.