[ExI] How a total n00b mined $700 in bitcoins
clementlawyer at gmail.com
Mon Jul 1 22:16:04 UTC 2013
Thought this might interest a few of you who have been discussing Bitcoins.
Apologies for any discontinuity in the article, as I had to remove numerous
embedded photos. url:
How a total n00b mined $700 in bitcoins
We take a Butterfly Labs Bitcoin miner, plug it in, and make it (virtually)
This is the second in a two-part series exploring Butterfly Labs and its
lineup of dedicated Bitcoin-mining hardware. In part one, we looked at the
the experiences customers have had with it. In part two, we share our
experiences running a Bitcoin miner for a couple weeks.
There is a whirring, whining presence in my dining room. I notice it every
time I walk through. Every day, it sucks down about one full kilowatt-hour
of electricity. In a year, it will consume almost $100 worth of juice—and
that's on top of the $274 it costs to buy the box in the first place. Oh,
and it's hot, too. If I moved it into my office and could stand the noise,
I could keep a cup of coffee comfortably warm on top of the thing. Why on
earth would anyone want such a disagreeable little machine in their home?
The short answer: every day, that machine magically generates something
like $20 in bitcoins.
The BFL miner: A video intro
Allow me to introduce you to the Butterfly Labs 5GH/s "Jalapeño" Bitcoin
A newbie and his miner
Ars Senior Business Editor Cyrus Farivar tapped me on the shoulder a few
weeks back with a proposition. "I've got a Butterfly Labs Bitcoin mining
box," he explained. "There aren't that many in the wild right now. I'm
working on a story about the company, but I'm about to go on vacation. Do
you want to see if you can get the thing working while I'm out?"
I was intrigued. Bitcoin? That's the electronic currency that's quickly
rocketed from lame nerd project to ludicrously valuable hot topic, right? I
didn't know a lot about the world of Bitcoin other than the fact that
"mining" them involved people building custom PCs with tons of video cards
to handle the math. I certainly didn't know how to "mine" bitcoins myself
or what to *do* with the things once I had them. I just knew that people
eventually try to trade them in for cash somehow (but how to do *that* was
also a total mystery).
And yet here was the opportunity to take a piece of hardware I'd never
heard of and see if I could use it to magically create some money out of
nowhere. I told Cyrus to send me the Butterfly Labs miner. As he trekked
off to Peru for his vacation, I settled in with the little black box.
Butterfly Labs is a company that has drawn a fair amount of controversy for
what the Bitcoin community at large perceives as a string of broken promises
.The company sells ASIC-based Bitcoin miners—machines that are built around
customized chips that do nothing except compute SHA-256
very quickly.Its smallest miner (the one I had to get working) is codenamed
"Jalapeño" and computes a bit over five billion hashes per second (or 5GH/s)
. The problem is that Butterfly Labs started selling the machines long
before it actually had a product to sell. It began taking paid-in-full
preorders back in mid-2012, and thousands of customers opened their wallets
for Bitcoin miners ranging from the small 5GH/s miner at $274 all the way
up to the large 500Gh/s miner, which costs $22,484.
Butterfly Labs promised certain performance targets to customers—it
initially felt confident that its application-specific integrated circuit
(ASIC) designs would deliver one billion hashes per second for every 1.1
watt of power consumed. This proved extremely optimistic. Hardware delivery
slipped multiple times. Now, a full year later, the first few real live
Butterfly Labs boxes are finally being shipped, though no small number (as
many as 30) were sent to journalists to review rather than to paying
B ut when the little black box showed up on my doorstep, I had no idea
about the deep and extremely vocal Bitcoin community or the story behind
Butterfly Labs. I didn't really even fully understand what the miner did. I
simply knew that I wanted to get this thing working and make some money.
Out of the box
The 5GH/s Jalapeño miner is a black rounded cube with a brushed metal finish
.The only connectors on the exterior of the device are on the back: a
mini-USB port for data and a power plug. Near the power plug are a series
of small red LEDs that the device uses to tell you its status, though there
was no documentation in the box to explain what the LEDs meant. The front
of the cube contains another red LED to indicate power.
There are two sets of vents, one low on the front and the other high on the
rear.The device's internal 80 mm fan draws cooler air up from the front
through the fins of the large heat sink mounted on the ASIC chip. It expels
the now-warm air out through the top vents.
Front view of the Butterfly Labs 5GH/s Jalapeño miner. The understated
Butterfly Labs logo is on the top of the device; visible on its front are
the air intake vents.
After I unboxed the thing and took some photos, I was sort of stuck. I had
no idea what to *do* with the little rounded-off cube.
Before I consulted the Internet for documentation, I tried briefly—and in
vain—to see if I could make it work on my own. "I am a geek, and I work at
Ars Technica, which is a major technology website of some renown," I thought
. "I have built Web servers. I use, like, Linux and stuff. How hard can
this really be?"
Too hard, apparently. Connecting it via USB to any of the computers I had
handy didn't really cause anything to happen. The device showed up on the
USB bus and identified itself, but it didn't *do* anything. I naively
wondered if there was some kind of application I needed to download to "log
on" to the device to get it mining.
When connected via USB, the miner shows up as a "BitFORCE SHA256 SC," which
is the ASIC identifier.
I admitted defeat and consulted the Internet. Unfortunately, as I was to
quickly learn, I was coming at the miner with a certain set of false
assumptions. The BFL miner is a pretty simple device; it doesn't have an
"interface" or a console or anything like that at all. It talks via
serial-over-USB, and you do need an application running on your computer to
actually do anything with it.
In fact, you need several things: a mining application, a "wallet," and a
"pool," though the pool is optional.
The first thing I needed to do was to set up a wallet, or a place to keep
my bitcoins. A wallet lets you engage in Bitcoin transactions—it lets you
create Bitcoin *addresses* you can share and that people can send money to. In
addition to being able to send and receive bitcoins to and from other
Bitcoin users, you need a wallet so that you've got somewhere to keep the
bitcoins you generate through mining. I wound up creating my wallet at
Blockchain.info <http://blockchain.info/>, though there are many
Once you've got a wallet, you really ought to join a mining pool because
Bitcoin mining is best done with shared labor. Nothing at all forbids you
from striking out on your own, but the nature of the entire virtual
currency system is such that by sharing the work required for "discovering"
the currency, you share in the reward as well.
Understanding how bitcoins are brought into being requires understanding
the network behind the currency. Briefly, the entire record of every
Bitcoin transaction ever made stretching back to the currency's beginning
is public. This is called the *block chain*. Bitcoin mining involves
confirming those transactions by collecting several of them together into a
group called a *block* and running specific cryptographic functions on it.
The *chain* concept comes into play because every time a bitcoin is
"spent," the spender appends a hash to the bitcoin derived from his or her
own cryptographic private key, the previous transaction's hash, and the
recipient's cryptographic public key. As each bit of data added to
Bitcoin's history of transactions is cryptographically derived from
previous data, altering earlier data would invalidate the entire chain.
When a collected block of transactions is confirmed by a Bitcoin miner—that
is, when the SHA-256 hashing that the miners are doing on a transaction
results in a very specific value that starts with a number of zeros—the
block is said to have been "mined." The winning miner is allowed to reward
itself with some number of bitcoins. That number is currently 25, and it
decreases by 50 percent in intervals over time.
If you're mining in a pool, you split the reward with the other members of
your pool based on the pool's specific rules. If you're mining by yourself,
you keep the entire payout. The issue with mining by oneself is that it's
very likely to take you much, much longer to confirm a block than it would
with an entire pool's resources. Joining a pool is the way to faster
payouts of bitcoins.
Because I can never do anything the easy way, I wasn't content with getting
the BFL box working under Windows, which is a well-documented and fairly
straightforward process. No, I wanted to make it work under OS X. That
required a bit of help.
I spent quite a bit of time talking with John O'Mara, creator of the
MacMiner <http://fabulouspanda.co.uk/macminer/>application for mining
bitcoins on a Mac. MacMiner is a FOSS GUI wrapper
uses another FOSS application, bfgminer <https://github.com/luke-jr/bfgminer>,
to tell the mining hardware (be it video cards or separate ASIC-based
boxes) what to do. In the end, the solution involved a lot of work on
John's part and not really that much on mine, except for me running
commands and reporting back their results.
Because Butterfly Labs miners are still relatively scarce in the wild, John
didn't have one to test with. Still, using me as a (dumb) remote
manipulator, we eventually got the BFL box correctly hooked up and mining. The
release version of MacMiner supports the Butterfly Labs ASIC miners now,
but since I had gotten it working first on the command line, that's what I
In fact, once it worked, it was a little anticlimactic. I typed in the
command and the bash prompt to kick the miner off. Rather than spitting out
an error like it had been doing, the screen lit up in a deliciously cryptic
We are now mining. There are numbers happening.
Numbers. Lots of numbers everywhere. I stared at it for long seconds,
watching the updates crawl upward from the bottom of the screen. *Am I
actually mining?* I wondered. *Is money happening?* I envisioned my little
MacBook Air lighting up like a slot machine if I found an actual block. Would
sirens go off? Would money shoot out?
I quickly shared a screenshot with the rest of the Ars team in IRC. "IS
THIS GOOD?!" I asked. No one really knew.
I kept staring at the numbers, not yet willing to glance at bfgminer's
see what they meant. All I knew is that there were lots of counters and
things on my screen, and I wanted them to be *higher*. I had a sudden
flashback to my first job out of college in 2000, when I dragged 20 unused
Pentium II PCs into a corner and rigged them all up with the
SETI at Homeclient and briefly became an ET-searching superstar
Performance, noise, heat
The BFL miner does precisely one thing: compute SHA-256 hashes as fast as
it can. So from a benchmarking perspective, the main question to answer is
whether or not it hits its rated target of five billion hashes per second.
When hashing, the BFL miner actually hovers at between 5.4-5.6GH/sec,
delivering a bit more than its rated amount of hashes per second. The
device pulled about 30 watts of power when idle and 50 watts of power when
actively hashing. It reported internal temperatures as high as 80C.
Some back-of-the-napkin math based on my Kill-a-Watt meter's readings show
that the device would consume a bit under $100 per year in
at current Bitcoin mining difficulty levels, it produces about 0.1 BTC
about every 12 hours. It's impossible to speculate on BTC-to-dollar rates
in the future since they're so volatile. But at the exchange rates that
were current as I was piecing this article together, the miner had repaid
its purchase price *within ten days*. If the value and difficulty of BTC
holds, an ASIC-based miner like this could generate thousands of dollars of
revenue per year.
After a couple of days tinkering with the box to actually get it mining, it
was kind of a letdown. The box made noise and consumed a bit of
electricity; every 12 hours or so I would get a notice in e-mail from
Blockchain.info, letting me know that another ~0.1BTC had been deposited
into my account thanks to the combined efforts of me and the rest of the
pool I'd joined <https://mining.bitcoin.cz/>. It definitely worked. It was
not a scam. It was a legitimate 5GH/s miner.
The Ars editorial team had resolved even before I plugged in the device
that we'd be donating any monies it generated to the EFF. So after I'd
gotten a representative sample of bitcoins, I was ready to stop and
there was still one major aspect of Bitcoin mining that wasn't terribly
clear to me. How, exactly, does one *cash out?*
Before I donated the fruits of the miner's labor, I resolved to actually
take the bitcoin generation through to the end I'd been wondering about. At
this point, which was the last week in May, the little BFL box had
generated precisely 2.90220929 BTC. I would take those bitcoins and turn
them into cold, hard cash.
I quickly learned that transforming BTC into USD wasn't a single-step
process.There's no "cash out" button; rather, you must either arrange a
transaction yourself with a private party or sell your BTC through an *
exchange*. I started withthe list of exchanges
the Bitcoin wiki to get a feel for my options.
The most famous exchange is MtGox <https://mtgox.com/>, but looking at its
options for withdrawing funds quickly turned me away. Most exchanges allow
you to sell your BTC for US dollars, but few provide a way to retrieve your
dollars that I felt comfortable using. Many allow you to transfer dollars
to a PayPal account, but I don't use PayPal. Others let you pull money
directly into a personal checking account via ACH or wire transfer, but I
wasn't willing to share my bank account details or open a new throwaway
checking account. Some exchanges, including MtGox, allow you to withdraw
dollars using Dwolla <https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Dwolla>(no thanks) or Liberty
Finally, a little way down the list, I noticed one exchange with the option
to withdraw funds in the form of USPS money orders: Camp BX
I popped over to its site and established an account, then I generated an
address to receive the bitcoins. Back over at my Blockchain.info wallet, I
clicked the "Send Money" option, entered the address I'd generated for my
Camp BX account, selected my entire store of 2.90220929 bitcoins, and hit
The transaction went through. I'd just created some work for the legions of
other Bitcoin miners to verify. Several minutes later, the balance showed
up in my Camp BX account. Somewhere else, a new block of 25 bitcoins was
awarded and spread around as incentive for helping validate my transaction. The
I was far more concerned at this point with actually getting some money out
of the infernal machine. Without being too terribly sure what I was doing,
I clicked "TRADE NOW" and then initiated a "Quick Sell" order. The ticker
at the top of the screen informed me that the current bid price for
bitcoins was $129.52 per, and it recommended that I sell my BTC at that rate
. So I gamely typed in my maximum amount of BTC, entered the suggested rate
of $129.52, and previewed the order.
Is money happening? I think money is about to be happening.
"You are about to execute a Quick Sell order," the site informed me,
showing me the details I'd entered on the previous screen. Feeling every
bit the Internet tycoon, I clicked "EXECUTE SELL."
The next screen informed me that my sell order had gone through
BX kept a bit over $2 in commission, and I suddenly had $374 in my Camp BX
Money has kind of happened! I think I just got paid... somehow!
Next, I clicked "TRANSFER" and initiated the withdrawal process. There's a
$20 fee for pulling out funds in the form of a USPS money order, as well as
a maximum daily withdrawal of $1,000. I didn't mind giving up $20 of what
was essentially free money anyway if it meant I didn't have to give out my
checking account information. I punched in my information and requested the
Wait. OK, money hasn't happened yet. I mean, it has—sort of. Now I just
need to get the money to me.
A few days later, I received a hand-addressed envelope via certified
sure enough, was a hand-written USPS money order for $354.00 from "BulBul
Investments LLC." I drove it down to my credit union, and they cashed it
You guys. We are so close to having turned bitcoins into actual real money.
After a quick trip to the bank, you can call me THE RAINMAKER.
I had done it. I had legitimately mined bitcoins and transmuted raw
electricity into dollars, through the power of *mathematics*. Truly, my
skill knew no bounds!
But the story doesn't *quite* end there.
You might wonder, dear reader, why I stopped at 2.90220929 bitcoins. It's
rather an odd number. Why not three? Why not four or five?
After I filmed the video at the beginning of this piece, I resituated the
little BFL miner back into its corner of the dining room to resume its work
while I edited.As I walked away, I heard the whirring of the BFL miner take
on a decidedly*angry* tone. I approached it and knelt, thinking that the
fan bearing might have started to go bad, because that's certainly what it
sounded like. I tapped with one finger on the top of the device.
*"RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR—WHOCK,"* it said, before going totally silent.
I pulled the power cord and disassembled the machine to take a peek. One of
the fan blades had snapped off, catching itself in the aluminum fins of the
Clearly, the BFL 5GH/s miner's mining days were done—and at an odd number
of BTC mined, too.
A new challenger appears
I contacted Butterfly Labs and let them know that the fan had broken, and
they immediately offered to send a replacement miner. At first I demurred,
but on reflection I decided to take them up on their offer. The power
numbers mentioned in my initial quick post
jibe with the numbers of some other BFL miners in the wild. I was curious
to see if a replacement unit's stats would vary that much. Plus, with one
BFL miner down after only two weeks of mining, I wanted a second sample. Was
there a quality issue? Or did I just happen to get one with a bad fan?
Butterfly Labs quickly shipped the replacement, and the very next morning a
friendly FedEx driver dropped it off at my front door. Superficially, it
looked identical, but on plugging it in I was quite surprised at the
I noticed immediately that the noise was lower; I didn't measure the
decibel level of either box scientifically, but to my ear the new one was
markedly quieter than the old. Power consumption was also far lower. While
crunching numbers, the new box drew just 30 watts—roughly the same amount
of power that the first miner drew while idling.
The reduced amount of power consumed was reflected in the temperatures
being left to run all night, the thermal sensor reported about 37C—about*
half* of the first box's temperatures under load.
Half the noise, half the heat, and almost half the power draw? What was
going on in that little box?
I reached out to Jeff Ownby of Butterfly Labs and asked about the
[ASIC] chips each have a potential of 4.2GH/s," he explained. "So the
theoretical max of a Jalapeño with two chips is 8.4GH/s. However, we use
the lower graded chips in the Jalapeño and the higher grade chips in our
other products, so the maximum performance in a Jalapeño is something less,
which is what you're seeing."
Butterfly Labs has its share of troubles with its ASIC suppliers—in fact,
most of the long delay between preorder taking and delivery appear to be
related directly or indirectly to the actual design and manufacturing of
the ASIC itself.These problems appear to have been somewhat solved and the
company is actually shipping miners <http://bfl.ptz.ro/>. It seems that
all efforts are going to filling the 5GH/s Jalapeño orders first. The
second unit I got was apparently a higher-graded chip that might have been
fit for duty in a higher-spec miner (though in an e-mail sent after I'd
turned in my first draft of this piece, Jeff Ownby let me know that
Butterfly Labs is now shipping models other than the low-end Jalapeño).
Obvious question: if there's headroom, can I overclock the miner? I dashed
off another e-mail to the Butterfly Labs folks. "We'd prefer to leave the
question of overclocking officially unanswered, but we don't mind you
throwing that possibility out there for curious minds."
A*ha*. Unfortunately, I wouldn't even know where to begin. The miner
accepts commands via serial-over-USB, and I don't know if it's possible to
pass it any commands over that interface to alter its clock speed. I don't
have a command reference for Butterfly Labs' ASIC, so reverse-engineering
is a difficult prospect.It's entirely possible, if Butterfly Labs is doing
voltage regulation and clock speed multiplication in the software, that
there might be some magic commands you could issue to up the juice to a
Speaking of reverse-engineering, there's also this:
If you've got the tools and the talent, there's a JTAG here that you can go
There's a JTAG <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JTAG>connector clearly
visible. I don't have the equipment to actually utilize the connector, but
in a group as technically minded as the Bitcoin mining community, I'm sure
there will be someone out there who will be poking at the miner through
this interface to see what they can learn (if it hasn't already been done).
Additionally, Butterfly Labs has published the source code for their board
firmware programming tools in a Github repo
. "This code has the mining logic and directs the nonces to the appropriate
engine and collects the results and sends them back out to the world,"
explained Ownby when I asked him what was contained in the files. Developers
with an interest in seeing what the Butterfly Labs miner can do and in
possibly extending its capabilities can use this code as a starting place.
The final tallies
In the end, the two miners together consumed a total of 28.30 kWh of
electricity. According to my latest utility bill, I'm paying $0.13 per kWh,
so my Bitcoin mining experiment cost me $3.68 in real electricity (without
accounting for taxes and fees and whatever else the power company pads my
bill with). The tally is obviously complicated by the two different miners
consuming different amounts of juice. Even at the higher electricity rate
of the first miner, it's clear that—at current exchange rates and
difficulty—Bitcoin mining with one of these boxes is a profitable endeavor.
In fact, if it's so profitable, why on earth is Butterfly Labs *selling* these
devices?Why not rent a warehouse, fill it with miners, and make infinity
The answer is two-fold. First, BFL required a great deal of capital in
order to design and manufacture the ASICs that power its boxes and then to
assemble the miners themselves. This capital was provided in no small part
by pre-selling the miners; hanging onto them to do some BTC mining with
them is sketchy at best and at worst illegal. Plus, there are practical
considerations: a giant BTC warehouse adds overhead costs, and I can't even
begin to take a guess at the bookkeeping implications of warehousing
capital like that.
However, the second reason is far more practical: bitcoins, for all their
current value, are still speculative. A large amount of US dollars is a
large amount of US dollars no matter which way you cut it. It can be
readily exchanged for goods and services. Bitcoins themselves don't
necessarily hold value, and it's difficult to exchange them in large
quantities for an equivalent amount of dollars. So selling Bitcoin miners
for dollars guarantees a certain number of dollars; investing capital into
mining a truly large number of bitcoins might work well as a short-term
hedge, but the value of the trade is utterly impossible to predict.
This, I suppose, is part of the nature of high-risk investments. But in
this case, Butterfly Labs can simply charge whatever it wants for its gear
in order to make whatever margin it deems is sufficient. Why bet on the
future of a relatively new virtual currency that may go up or down when you
can simply get a bunch of real US dollars?
Obviously, the value of those US dollars may—will!—also go up and down, but
it's also extremely easy to extract value from a dollar. I can't—at least
yet—pay my mortgage in BTC, or buy a car in BTC, or really even buy
everyday necessities (I don't live anywhere near any random merchants who
have decided to begin accepting BTC). A dollar, at least today, has far
greater utility and far greater immediate value.
Bitcoin’s not for me—but it might be for you
I ran the replacement miner for an equal amount of time as the first one
ran before breaking; it held up without complaints and churned out an
additional three bitcoins. Both our cash from the first miner and our
bitcoins from the second have been turned over to the EFF, and our second
Butterfly Labs miner has been returned to its manufacturer. I am once again
a normal person who traffics in normal-person money. I'd actually gotten
used to walking past the dining room in the morning and hearing the *
whirrrrrr* of the miner in the corner, and now the house seems weirdly quiet
The biggest takeaway from my time working with the Butterfly Labs
"Jalapeño" miner is that you don't really have to know a damn thing about
how bitcoins work to mine them. As complex as the underlying cryptography
is to a layman like me, the only reason why I couldn't pull this thing out
of the box and start mining after reading a couple of wiki articles was
that I wanted to get it working on OS X. John O'Mara's help was priceless,
and once we had the application side figured out, it was smooth sailing.
So should you don your prospecting gear, buy a Butterfly Labs miner this
very instant, and start making money? You *could*, but there are a couple
of issues.The first is that Butterfly Labs has only recently started
shipping products, and its first priority is to its year-long backlog of
preorder customers. If you're buying a unit today, you're going to be way, *
way* down the list. There are tons of other high-speed ASIC-based miners,
though—sites like The Genesis Block
tabs on what's available and what's worth buying.
The other issue is a bit stickier: the Bitcoin system adjusts its overall
difficulty as mining speed increases in an attempt to limit the speed of
Bitcoin production. A few years ago, a 5GH/s miner like the Jalapeño would
have produced a veritable torrent of bitcoins in a day; a few years *from* now,
specialized hardware will be required to mine even tiny fractions of BTC.
If you're going to buy an ASIC-based miner, it might be best to get one, as
they say, while the gettin' is still good.
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