GPU mining is the mining of cryptocurrencies using a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) to solve complex mathematical calculations called "hashes" instead of purely using the CPU as was more common in the early days of crypto.
Before we get into the specifics of what GPU mining is, we should briefly cover what crypto mining is, for those that may be new to crypto and are still learning. Mining is the way that new crypto is created by cryptos that use what is known as proof of work (PoW). Very simply proof of work (PoW) is the solving of complex mathematical puzzles or hashes as they are known and being rewarded in coins. Bitcoin uses proof of work as does Ethereum at the moment, although this is likely to change soon. However, we won't go into that. For now, it's important to understand what mining is and what proof of work is in order to be able to understand what GPU mining is.
The basics, what is a central processing unit (CPU)
In any computer, whether that be a Mac, PC or any other type of computer there sits a CPU or central processing unit. This is effectively the brains of the entire computer. The CPU handles calculations and the use of the computer's resources.
GPU vs CPU mining
In the early days of bitcoin, it was possible to mine bitcoin using a relatively modest computer and the CPU was capable of handling the task of solving complex mathematical puzzles or hashes pretty easily. As the number of miners exploded it became ever more competitive and the computing power naturally increased as each miner competed with other miners to solve the puzzle first and be rewarded with coins and transaction fees. The race for higher computing power and the need to solve the hashes or mathematical puzzles faster led to the discovery of using a GPU or Graphics Processing Unit to take over the heavy lifting from the CPU and do a way better job.
What is a GPU?
A GPU stands for Graphics Processing Unit and is a piece of hardware that is either a separate card or is part of the motherboard and is responsible for rendering complex graphics. The GPU is used heavily in gaming and video-rendering. The GPU says to the CPU, "hey, leave those heavy mathematical calculations to me, it's what I'm good at, you worry about the other stuff". Okay, the GPU doesn't talk but if it did it would probably say something like that. So the GPU is a dedicated piece of hardware that is capable of over 800 times the processing power of a CPU. You can see straight away why the GPU became attractive to crypto miners. The GPU is solely responsible for video-rendering or mathematical problem-solving in the case of crypto mining, whereas before the CPU handled it all. By bringing in a dedicated resource, the CPU has to work less hard and has a better qualified and more capable resource, the GPU to take care of the complex problem-solving.
What is GPU mining?
Very simply, GPU mining is the mining of crypto using a graphics processing unit (GPU). This would be as opposed to CPU mining, where the central processing unit (CPU) is handling the mathematical puzzle-solving as well as ensuring that the computer as a whole is functioning.
What are the advantages of GPU mining?
The primary advantages of GPU mining are:
- Easy maintenance and upgrades
- Better energy efficiency
- Handling complex calculations better
A GPU based mining rig can be up to 800 times faster than a CPU-based one, additionally, it is common for mining rigs to use more than one GPU to provide even more power, it's not uncommon for a GPU mining rig to have three powerful GPUs. This will blow a single CPU based mining rig out of the water.
Easy maintenance and upgrades
A separate GPU generally tends to have updates and can more easily be exchanged for a replacement unit if it fails or can later be easily upgraded for a newer, more powerful model. This is not so easy or generally possible with CPUs.
Better energy efficiency
Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) provide a more energy-efficient way to mine crypto when compared to CPU mining. GPUs conserve energy better. High energy use is a common issue and criticism of crypto mining.
Handling complex calculations better
Whilst you can throw complex problems at CPUs they will get hot and this could cause problems and even lead to a system failure which is the last thing a miner needs. A powerful GPU or series of GPUs on the other hand is way more efficient and better suited for a demanding and intensive task like crypto mining.
What about alternatives to GPU mining?
While GPU mining has no doubt superseded CPU mining, GPU mining is still utilising hardware actually designed for gaming and graphics-intensive applications like video editing or gaming. An alternative is ASIC, which stands for Application-Specific Integrated Circuit. Instead of using general-purpose integrated circuits for mining, ASICS are integrated circuits specifically designed and optimised for the demanding task of crypto mining. They are literally designed for the job. ASICS generally beat CPUs and GPUs when it comes to reduced energy consumption and computing capacity.
Crypto mining is still very much in its infancy in relative terms, let's face it, bitcoin only appeared on the scene in 2009 and in those days almost any half-decent spec computer could be used for mining. Fast forward to today, the stakes are way higher leading to intense competition amongst miners and an endless technological race for faster and more powerful mining rigs that can complete the hashes the fastest and claim the rewards. The GPU has certainly played its part and still continues to be used, although more dedicated ASIC based mining hardware is generally favoured for serious mining rigs. For now, though GPU mining can still be considered valid although it's fair to say that its days could be numbered.