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What’s Chia, And Why Is It Eating All The Hard Drives?

At this point, the average Hackaday reader is probably familiar with so-called “Proof of Work” (PoW) cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Dogecoin. In the most basic terms, these cryptocurrencies allow users to make money by devoting computing power to the network. Unfortunately, the point has already passed where your standard desktop processor moves enough bits to win something useful. Therefore, people who want to make a profit have resorted to constructing arrays of high-end graphics cards with the explicit goal of “extracting” their chosen cryptocurrency.

These miners, combined with the continuing shortage of chips, have ravaged the GPU market. Anyone who has recently considered building or upgrading a computer will know that the new video cards are in short supply, and even the old models, which would otherwise be considered budget options, impose scandalous prices. In an attempt to reassure their main customers, NVIDIA has even introduced cryptocurrency-specific cards that lack video output. The hope was that professional miners would buy these cryptocurrency digging processors (CMPs) instead of traditional video cards, freeing up the latter for purchase by gamers. But due to the limited availability and relatively high cost of CMP, they have not done much to improve the situation.

Now, if you don’t use your computer for gaming, this probably seems like a distant problem. You may even be forgiven for thinking of it as a little more than two largely frivolous pursuits. After all, in a community that still holds decades of Thinkpads as a leader in laptops, some ambivalence may be expected about state-of-the-art video cards.

But there is a new form of cryptocurrency on the rise that threatens more than hardcore gamers. Proof of Space (PoS) cryptocurrencies are not the fastest processor or the largest number of GPUs; the commodity being traded is storage space and the player with the most hard drives wins.

The rise of Chia

Conceptually, PoS cryptocurrencies have been around for some time. The idea was first proposed in the 2013 report. “Evidence for space” by Stefan Dzembowski, Sebastian Faust, Vladimir Kolmogorov and Krzysztof Pietrzak, who was later presented at the 35th International Conference on Cryptology in 2015. The main argument of the article is that PoW currencies are inherently wasteful as they consume processing power to function, and notes that critics have already predicted that bitcoin will be an environmental disaster. By comparison, the difference in power consumption between an empty computer and a computer with hypothetical PoS software would be negligible. In addition, they argue that computers already have a large amount of unused disk space that can be offered to the network.

Several cryptocurrencies have emerged based on the concepts set out in “Evidence for space”, but none of them really caught on until Chia Network was founded in 2017. At least in part, thanks to investors who want to get into everything related to blockchain technology, the launch started to an estimate of $ 500 million in May this year. Created by BitTorrent developer Bram Cohen, the Chia documentation relies heavily on the idea that it’s a “green” alternative to Bitcoin that requires neither a high-performance computer nor equipment that can’t be reused, if not you are interested in chia. As explained in their FAQ, nothing stops you from deleting Chia data from your devices and using it for regular file storage.

At least on paper, chia certainly looks like a greener option. Consider that a modern high-end video card like the GeForce RTX 3080 can easily pull more than 300 watts when running at full tilt, while even the hungriest SSDs reach up to 8 watts. Of course, this does not take into account the cost of the hardware or the relative value of each resource, measured by their respective cryptocurrencies. But if your only concern is how much watts your system draws, you could spin 20 or 30 SSDs before they even get close to what a modern GPU consumes.

Life on the farm

The term “mining” makes sense for the cryptocurrencies Proof of Work, as you make an effort to unlock something valuable. But in the Chia language, those who want to dedicate their storage space to the web are known as “farmers”; because after the initial setup, it essentially becomes a passive activity. The user simply maintains his farm, which in this case means maintaining an array of disk drives, powered and properly maintained, and waiting for something to sprout.

In a perfect world, you can simply point your Proof of Space software at a blank hard drive and get credit for it. But in practice, such a simplified system would be susceptible to fraud. So if you want to dedicate your devices to Chia, the software should periodically check that they are not used for anything else. When the device is first launched online, Chia software will “draw” it by filling the unused space with cryptographic data. Then, when the blockchain broadcasts a challenge, the farmer’s disks will be scanned and anyone with a hash that is the closest match will be rewarded with a chia.

Since it essentially works like a lottery, the best way to increase your chances of getting a matching hash and getting a chia in return is to add more storage space to your farm. The good news is that farm management does not require much computing power. In fact, Chia’s documentation recommends the use of a single-board computer such as the Raspberry Pi 4 or ROCK Pi with a set of USB devices to support your digital cultures.

Chia agricultural reference setting using 32 hard drives and ROCK Pi 4

So how big a farm does it take to make money from Chia? There are many variables, many of which change every day, but the short answer is that with just one plot of 100 GB, you will need a lot on devices to see any noticeable returns. At this writing, the Chia calculator shows that a An array of 100 TB can bring in $ 240 USD per month at current prices. But since there is a certain element of luck, your results in the real world will vary absolutely.

The plot is thickening

It is clear how Chia’s growing popularity can create a problem. Creating a farm does not take an advanced video card, which only a relatively small number of computer users could buy in the first place; requires common hardware such as USB hubs and external hard drives, which we all take for granted. The growing Chia may even limit the availability of single-board computers, something that would affect hacking and make the community more than anyone else. The shortage has so far been limited to high-end, enterprise-class devicesbut it’s not hard to imagine how this could be extended to consumer hardware.

This is because Chia has something dirty. While it is true that agriculture is largely passive, processing the creation of the original 100 GB “plot” is anything but. Creating cryptographic hashes requires not only a fairly powerful computer, but writing them puts the target disk itself under enormous stress. To circumvent this, farmers have undertaken the creation of their plots on smaller SSDs and then moved them to corporate drives with greater long-term storage capacity once completed. In such a configuration, SSDs are considered a cost resource, with some reports claiming it only takes a few weeks to burn out a standard consumer device.

The search for discs is real. A Seagate spokesman recently confirmed that the manufacturer is exploring the idea of ​​Chia-specific devices, but did not specify what would lead to this. While little influence has been exerted by NVIDIA’s attempts to curb miners, it is hard to imagine that this will change much. Unless cryptocurrency-adapted hardware is cheaper and more widely available than traditional options, farmers and miners will make no effort to switch.

Market instability

Not everything is bad news. Although the situation did seem awful for a while, it seems that cool heads may prevail. There was a crazy rush to buy hard drives when Chia’s price jumped to just over $ 1,600 in May, but by June 1, the price had dropped to about $ 700. Today it costs about $ 280.

The value of Chia fell from its peak in mid-May. Source: CoinMarketCap

Looking at the data, it definitely looks like Chia is leaking. Unless its value is restored soon, there is simply no return on investment for future farmers. Why spend thousands of dollars to earn hundreds? There is even a chance, given the nature of the reward system, like the lottery, that you will not win anything at all.

With a little luck, maybe the terrible apocalypse on the hard drive will pass us by. We could certainly take a break, given how many shortages we already have to deal with. But as we’ve seen with other cryptocurrencies, a tweet from Elon Musk may be all it takes to turn a chia up overnight. So maybe now is not the worst idea to get a few spare devices.

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