Cryptocurrency mining giant Bitmain has published a firmware update that allows bitcoin miners to activate “overt AsicBoost,” a technological upgrade that provides significant cost savings over conventional mining setups.
Bitmain released the patch just days after braiins, the software development group that operates Slush Pool, revealed that it had verified that Bitmain’s Antminer S9 hardware is capable of supporting overt AsicBoost, though the manufacturer had purposely disabled it by default. The group further stated that it would integrate overt AsicBoost support into a future firmware update for Braiins OS, the open-source ASIC mining system it launched in September.
Invented by Timo Hanke in collaboration with Sergio Lerner, the patented AsicBoost technology reduces the amount of work that SHA256 miners must perform to produce a hash.
AsicBoost can be implemented either covertly or overtly, with covert AsicBoost being more controversial as it incentivizes miners to produce small or empty blocks. It’s more efficient to implement the technology overtly, and overt usage also has the benefit of not incentivizing miners to produce empty blocks. However, covert AsicBoost has the benefit of making it difficult to identify which miners are using it, which would be attractive to miners who cannot activate it overtly for legal or other reasons.
Last year’s activation of Segregated Witness (SegWit) on Bitcoin made it much more difficult to use covert AsicBoost effectively. Critics accused Bitmain of employing covert AsicBoost prior to the fork, but the firm denied the allegation and a report from BitMEX Research said that it was “difficult to draw any firm conclusions” from blockchain data.
In today’s announcement, Bitmain explained that its initial decision to block overt AsicBoost came as a result of the legal controversy surrounding the use of AsicBoost, whether overt or not.
Though invented by Hanke, the patent associated with AsicBoost was later sold to a company called Little Dragon Technology. In March, the company made AsicBoost available through the Blockchain Defensive Patent License (BDPL) framework to discourage patent aggression and protect the interests of Bitcoin.
The firm explained:
“We believe AsicBoost is such an important an innovative patent that, if licensed defensively, can become a force for good to protect decentralization in Bitcoin. At this point, it is clear that covert AsicBoost does not serve the interests of Bitcoin due to the negative incentives outlined, however, version-rolling AsicBoost has none of these drawbacks, and is additionally more efficient than covert merkle grinding.”
Under the license, BDPL members may use overt AsicBoost, on the condition that they make their patents available through the BDPL, as well. According to the BDPL website, current license users are Little Dragon Technology, Halong Mining, QRF Solutions Pte Ltd, and Whalechain Technology Co. Ltd. Bitmain, which has been accused of patent aggression, has not joined the BDPL.
However, Bitmain now says that it has received legal opinion that “there isn’t and may never be a patent right over AsicBoost,” removing — in its view — any restriction on activating this technology, which was built into the BM1387 chip used by the Antminer Antminer R4, S9i, S9j, T9, and T9+.
“Initially, we decided against activating this mathematical function in mining hardware produced by us, largely because of the legal uncertainty surrounding the use of AsicBoost. As an organization, we didn’t want to violate patent laws or act in any way that was untoward….
“With regard to patent rights, we continue to respect third parties’ IP right and take actions accordingly. Based on legal opinions from various jurisdictions, we believe that there isn’t and may never be a patent right over AsicBoost. Thus, all miners should be entitled to make their own choice on whether to use AsicBoost technology without anybody having an exclusive right over it.”
According to braiins, the activation of overt AsicBoost will provide Antminer S9s with 13% in energy savings, providing bitcoin miners with a significant competitive edge in an industry where profit margins are growing thinner by the day.
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