GPU mining has seen better days but, with the advent of scrypt-based altcoins, it is going through a renaissance. This time around, though, the hardware makers are ready – which wasn’t the case in the good old days of bitcoin GPU mining.
Several companies are currently trying to gain a toehold in this niche market, and some are getting quite creative.
Muscle and aesthetics
The DopaMINE is a huge chassis, reminiscent of high-end PC towers, but it is quite a bit different than your standard PC box. It can accommodate up to six graphics cards, and not just any cards: high-end ones, like the Hawaii-based Radeon R9 290X/290.
Sticking six high-end GPUs into a single chassis isn’t as easy as it sounds. For example, a single 290X can consume up to 300W of power running under full load, which means you can forget about running them on a single power supply unit.
The DopaMINE can handle two PSUs, but even so miners will need to choose carefully and go for high-end models with the highest possible efficiency rating. Tahiti and Hawaii Pro cards are a bit less power hungry, but not by much.
Another problem is cooling. Keeping six monster GPUs cool necessitates a lot of airflow, so the chassis features three 120/140mm fan mounts on the bottom – which would not be enough if the chassis was not completely open.
Providing enough airflow for six high-end cards in an enclosed chassis was probably too challenging for DopaMINE. Besides, miners don’t tend to care about acoustics, so they probably won’t mind the extra noise.
The chassis supports practically every motherboard standard out there, from mini-ITX to E-ATX.
Our biggest concern doesn’t have anything to do with the specs – it’s the price. Red Harbinger won’t have an easy time selling DopaMINE units at $250 apiece.
Unlike gamers, miners simply don’t care about aesthetics and build quality. Many miners improvise, using homemade chassis or buying relatively cheap ones online. Miners are all about return on investment, not good looks.
However, the DopaMINE has a clever trick up its sleeve. Since it is a proper high-end chassis, it can take a lot of punishment and users can stack a few units on top of each other.
While this seems like a nice way of saving space, cooling could again be an issue. The heat from the units at the bottom could heat up the units on top of them, so more airflow would be necessary.
So, although it would be possible to rack and stack numerous GPUs in tight, enclosed spaces and tiny rooms, the heat would be unbearable and the room would need plenty of air conditioning. Still, this is an option if space is at a premium.
The future of GPU mining
The first scrypt ASICs are just around the corner, but questions about their effectiveness and efficiency persist.
Red Harbinger is also promoting this chassis as a testbed or a standard open-air chassis, just in case GPU mining proves to be a dead end. However, at this point it is not easy to say whether this will happen.
The whole idea behind scrypt and other emerging crypto standards is that they can’t be ‘beaten’ by ASICs, as a way of levelling the playing field and keeping mining decentralised.
In addition, even if some of these currencies can be crunched using ASICs, it usually takes on the order of several quarters to roll out a new ASIC for a new hash. GPUs are flexible – they can mine scrypt one day, and something new the next day.
For years AMD had a clear advantage in the world of GPU mining. For a number of geeky reasons, AMD Radeons are just better at it than Nvidia Geforce cards.
However, this appears to be changing. Nvidia’s new Maxwell architecture was designed with power efficiency in mind. The first card based on the new architecture launched this week.
The GTX 750 Ti is based on the GM107 core and is not a high-end card, but it is extremely frugal and its performance-per-watt is impressive – much better than you would get on a comparable Radeon built on the same 28nm TSMC node.
The problem is that there are no high-end Maxwell cards, and there will not be any until later this year.
Nvidia will not build high-end Maxwell cards using the 28nm node, it will wait for TSMC’s 20nm high-performance node, which is almost ready, but not quite. It should be ready for full-scale production sometime in the second half of 2014.
However, by the time Nvidia launches high-end GM200 series products based on Maxwell, AMD will also transition to 20nm with a tweaked Hawaii architecture, so it shouldn’t have much trouble maintaining its lead in the GPU mining niche.
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