There are two major assumptions these days about cryptocurrency mining that AMD wants to dispel. The first is the assumption that mining can only be done with any degree of success using a mining GPU.
The second, more compelling, argument is that the current cryptocurrency mining craze is bad for PC gamers and people looking to build their own PCs.
However, we chatted to AMD’s technical marketing manager, Damien Triolet, about how the company wants to highlight cryptocurrency mining on its processors, especially its Ryzen Threadripper range, and how this can actually help make building a high-end PC more affordable.
While cryptocurrency mining started off mainly using processors, nowadays attention has turned to using graphics cards.
“The reason why crypto mining is a good fit for GPUs,” Triolet explains, “is that they have a lot of compute power they can run thousands of threads in parallel, and they have huge memory bandwidth to feed all that. So, running crypto mining on the GPU is a very good fit, and because it's such a good fit on a GPU it seems unnatural that it would also be a good fit on the CPU because their profiles are so different.”
What Triolet, and AMD, want to prove is that CPU mining is still a viable way to make a profit.
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Why CPU mining?
Triolet was keen to talk to us about the benefits that AMD’s Ryzen and Threadripper CPUs could bring to miners.
“If you want to run something very fast on the CPU, you don't want something that would run with tons of threads and require massive memory bandwidth. What you want is to run fewer threads, but with very, very high efficiency. With a CPU, what is very critical is that the data that you're working with resides in the cache.”
Because using the cache is so important, it makes AMD’s CPUs a natural choice, as Triolet explains.
“That's the reason why mining on the CPU with AMD Ryzen, especially Ryzen Threadripper, is a good fit, because they come with a large L3 cache. Threadripper 1950X and 1920X, both come with 32MBs of L3 cache, which is massive. It's much higher than what the competition offers so far in that price range.”
Having each thread of a Threadripper processor access around 2MB of L3 cache, it would allow the chips to potentially run 16 mining threads, offering excellent mining results, especially if you pair it with the right mining algorithms.
“It enables some crypto algorithms to run very fast on the CPU, and the one we've been looking at, because it's the best one to run on the CPU right now, and it's actually very good on the GPU, is CryptoNight.”
CryptoNight is a mining algorithm designed for CPUs, and requires around 2MB of L3 cache per core of modern processors – perfect for use with Threadripper CPUs.
“CryptoNight is used by Monero (opens in new tab), which is the most famous currency using it, as well as Electroneum (opens in new tab) and other currencies. CryptoNight can also be used by NiceHash if you want something easy and you don't have to worry about all the different currencies, you can just use NiceHash to mine CryptoNight and select whatever currency is the most profitable for you."
"What CryptoNight requires to run very fast is threads with two megabytes of cache, so when you are running CryptoNight on the CPU, you can have the data that's residing on cache for 16 threads, and that's exactly why Threadripper will be very fast with CryptoNight.”
But how fast is ‘very fast?' According to Triolet, you’ll be getting results similar to a graphics card.
“The fastest GPU for CryptoNight is the Radeon RX Vega, and Threadripper will be in the same ballpark.”
However, it’s not quite that clear-cut, as Triolet explains: “With the Radeon RX Vega you can come up with some tweaks that might improve its performance significantly, and so the Radeon RX Vega would be faster in the end when properly optimized. But anyway, Threadripper will give you very good hash rates for CryptoNight that will lead to a nice profit.”
As Triolet and AMD are keen to stress, this isn’t about replacing GPUs for mining with a CPU. After all, even with the mining craze increasing GPU prices, a Threadripper CPU is still going to cost more.
“If you are just looking at what to buy right now to maximize cryptocurrency profit, then maybe you want to consider buying more GPUs. But that's not really what we want to talk about. We want to talk more about end users willing to change platform.”
So, AMD is looking to encourage people to join the Threadripper platform, and occasionally use it for mining to help make the upgrade affordable.
“From our point of view, Threadripper is the best of the best right now, and it's priced accordingly. Now, if the end users are considering mining on the side, when they are not using the system, then they should realize that the profit they will make will easily pay for the price difference compared to a more mainstream platform, which could be an incentive to then make the jump to this amazing platform.”
It’s certainly an interesting angle, as some people could justify the higher cost of a Threadripper CPU, compared to, say, a more affordable Ryzen 5 processor, by using it to mine every now and then, and use those profits to pay for the price difference.
Triolet explains how it could work: “So, to be to be more specific, and these are just numbers for reference, I have been looking at the kind of profit you could make with Threadripper mining only. If I just look at the CPU part with Threadripper after removing power costs, over the last 30 days they would have made $150, which is with Threadripper only.”
That’s not a bad return, and remember, you’d likely be using your CPU and your GPU to mine.
“[This profit] is significant, and that’s why we thought ‘OK, why is it that nobody knows about that?' Because everyone has been so focused on mining on the GPU that Threadripper was just sitting there doing good results but not really being seen as a good fit for mining.”
Cryptocurrency mining: the saviour of high component prices?
This is perhaps the most exciting prospect of what AMD is suggesting. While some component prices have been pushed up due to the popularity of mining, much to the annoyance of regular customers who just want to upgrade their PCs, AMD is suggesting that, by switching to the Threadripper platform and using the CPU to mine, it could help you afford these expensive parts.
As Triolet tells us, instead of buying a GPU at today’s inflated prices, but rather buying a CPU and motherboard and using it to mine to help you save up for a new graphics card, could be a wise choice.
“Some people may have a platform that, let's say, is two years old, and they’re thinking ‘okay should I upgrade my GPU or upgrade my motherboard and CPU?’ Maybe those people should see that right now with the craziness of the cryptocurrency market that maybe it's not a good time to buy a high-end GPU because availability is low and prices are kind of crazy. They could just wait a bit until the market cools down before they upgrade to a new GPU."
Of course, AMD is going to want you to consider investing in its pricey Threadripper platform, but there’s a decent logic to this. If you’ve been looking for a new GPU, by setting up your CPU to do some mining you can start saving up for the graphics card.
Also, as Triolet explains, you don’t need to necessarily buy the high-end Threadripper CPU to get a decent processor for mining.
“Because mining on the CPU is so dependent on the cache, if you get Threadripper 1920X it will it will give you almost the same hash rate as a Threadripper 1950X. What we've seen in our lab is that it would reach about 90% of the [hash rate of the] 1950X, even though it is only 75% of the price.”
How to mine using a Threadripper CPU
What Triolet says is pretty convincing, so if someone was to invest in a Threadripper CPU and motherboard for mining, what would he suggest they use?
“So, I think that maybe the best value for end users would be the Threadripper 1920X for mining. Also, you actually don't need very fast memory because, again, the data is residing on cache, so the memory speed has no impact on hash rate whatsoever. So, if you already have some DDR4 memory from before, or if you need to buy new DDR4 memory, you can go with the cheapest possible RAM and it won’t make any difference for mining, unlike what's happening on the GPU, where you want the fastest memory as possible. So, I would say the best system would be a Threadripper 1920X, cheap DDR4 memory, and then go from there."
And, what would you need on the software side? “CryptoNight [is the algorithm] getting the best results, and it's mostly because it seems very smart at configuring the threads on different kinds of CPUs. Then, there’s XMR-Stak, it’s a Monero miner, but it can be used to mine CryptoNight. It can interface into NiceHash, if you want something easy. And, for most end users, they don't want to worry about the different cryptocurrencies, so NiceHash is a great choice right now.”
NiceHash is a cryptocurrency cloud mining marketplace designed to make the selling of hashing power easy and simple.
While mining has meant that graphics cards are hard to find in stock (and when they are in stock they are usually very expensive), this won’t be an issue with CPUs.
“We don't anticipate any availability issues with CPUs, “ Triolet explains, “because the situation is very different with GPUs, where the professional miners would buy maybe six or more GPUs per CPU.”
As Triolet says, miners would usually buy a number of GPUs, and simply pair them with the cheapest CPU they could, in a bid to increase their profits.
“I think what they've been doing mostly up to this point was getting the cheapest CPU they could, like usually a cheap Celeron, and get four, six, eight, GPUs per board. But some of them are now actually interested in using Threadripper, instead of a cheap CPU like a Celeron. They realize that the investment is higher with Threadripper, but that it would make a nicer profit because they can then mine on the CPU as well. But again, I don't see that as being a threat to availability for Ryzen 7 or Threadripper.”
So, could buying a Threadripper CPU really pay for itself if you put it to mining? Triolet, and AMD, seem to think so.
“I think that Threadripper is very proficient when mining, so there is no reason to expect that you won't be able to make a profit with it. So, the profit might go down or it might go up, but you could recoup the cost of your platform after a while.”
So, this isn’t about buying Threadripper simply for mining, but as a way to help afford a high-end PC?
“Yeah, people should look at mining as a way to make high-end systems more accessible.”
It may sound a little like witchcraft, but we have to admit we like the idea of putting our expensive CPUs to work to help pay for them. And, in the end, you’ll have a powerful PC for doing non-mining related things with.
“Yes, exactly because maybe you will, with mining, pay off what you spent on your platform over a year, or maybe you will pay half of it, but you still end up with this amazing Threadripper platform.”
It certainly seems a more viable approach than spending a load of money on multiple graphics cards, which may prove to be useless if cryptocurrencies suddenly drop in value.
Triolet agrees, saying “for end users, if they want to mine and they buy four GTX 1060s, and next year the mining market is completely down, they would just end up with crap they would want to try to sell on eBay. If they [buy a] Threadripper CPU, a year from now they would have paid for this amazing platform and they still have an amazing platform that is very useful.”
So, while we’re not talking about making huge earnings from mining, by aiming to make more modest profits and putting them towards paying for upgrades, we can certainly see the appeal of what AMD is suggesting.
Rather than being the bane of PC gamers and upgraders' lives, could cryptocurrency actually make upgrading our PCs more affordable?
Triolet seems to think so: “It can even be the same with GPUs. Even if you get a low end GPU, you could mine on the side and just pay for your game DLCs or something like that. You don't have to be a professional miner to get the benefit.”
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