Data centers used for bitcoin mining

Data centers used for bitcoin mining have significant differences from their commercial data center counterparts.


Learning objectives

  • Learn about the differences in cryptocurrency data centers as compared with their traditional data center counterparts.
  • Understand the nuances in cooling and power systems for cryptocurrency data centers.

Back in 2009 Satoshi Nakamoto, regarded as the father of cryptocurrency, announced the first release of bitcoin. Nakamoto described it as a new electronic currency system, completely decentralized with no singular oversight, using a peer-to-peer network to prevent double-spending. Simply put, cryptocurrency is analogous to entries in a database that no one can change without fulfilling specific requirements. If you think about it, this is not so different than how a traditional bank account works.

Since bitcoin started in 2009, the use of cryptocurrency has continued to grow and gain in popularity. How data centers are used for mining cryptocurrency differ from other data centers in other industries, especially in regard to their power and cooling systems. 

Defining bitcoin mining and mining data centers

At a high level, the secure hash algorithm (SHA) is a function that is used to validate bitcoin transactions and ensure the security for the bitcoin network's public ledger, also known as the blockchain. The speed at which bitcoins are mined is measured in hashes per second. The servers used in mining (referred to as "miners" or "mining servers") bundle recent bitcoin transactions into "blocks," then work to solve cryptographic problems to help validate each block, making sure the ledger entries are accurate. These cryptographic problems are where the mining servers and data centers come into play. Solving these problems requires heavy-duty computational power operating for long periods of time.

The bitcoin network pays bitcoin miners for their time, effort, and financial investment by releasing bitcoins to those who contribute the needed computational power to validate the transactions. The greater computational power a miner has, the greater the portion of compensation—this is the overarching driver for why individuals and corporations are building megawatt bitcoin mining data centers, either to be used by themselves or for paying customers who then have access to mining servers without having to make major capital investments in information technology (IT) and facilities. In either scenario, minimizing first costs and ongoing energy costs is critical to maximizing return on investment (ROI).

Figure 1: World-wide mining operations grew at a modest rate from January 2014 to January 2017; subsequent to this period, operations grew at a phenomenal rate during the period January 2017 to January 2018. Courtesy: Bill KosikFundamentally, a mining data center shares the same basic design and operational principles as other types of data centers: Power is brought to the building and distributed to the equipment, air-distribution systems maintain the required environmental conditions, and the building provides protection from outside conditions and security from external threats. Although on a deeper level, there are significant differences to data centers that are used for mining than their commercial data center counterparts. This divergence is readily seen in the examination of the following categories:

  • Impacts of mining server design
  • Data center structure and envelope
  • Cooling and air distribution
  • Energy use and efficiency.

Analyzing the data on the growth of bitcoin from 2014 to 2018 indicates a tremendous growth in mining activities. This is an important indicator of energy use linked to mining operations. The growth of mining (and energy use) has been extremely strong from 2014 to 2018, and trend analyses show a continued positive, aggressive growth. Taking into consideration the very rapid growth that is occurring, and projections, it is imperative to focus on energy-reduction strategies (Figure 1). 

Mining server design

Two major considerations when investing in mining servers is the first-cost per hash and the electrical efficiency stated in watts per hash. Higher-performing computers have higher hash rates, providing greater computational power to the mining operation. In contrast to enterprise servers, miners are designed to accomplish only one task-mining. Currently, a common type of architecture used for mining servers is based on the application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) chips, often referred to as system on a chip (SoC).

When developing a cooling system strategy, an important consideration is that miners can operate with inlet conditions of 80 to 90°F and10% to 80% non-condensing relative humidity. A powerful mining server can have an electrical demand of 1,400 W or more, dissipating the equivalent quantity of heat to the data center. To minimize the possibility of server failure due to high interior temperatures, some of the server manufacturers include a controller that varies the speed of the fan in the server, the voltage, and clock speed of the machine based on the temperature. Additionally, the larger cross-sectional area of the miner allows for better airflow across the ASIC chips, enabling effective heat dissipation. Being able to take advantage of these higher operating temperatures, which can reduce or eliminate the requirements of the cooling system, is a central organizing principle for mining data centers. The extent of the reduction of cooling equipment is dependent on the size, location, and physical characteristic of the data center building.

Structure and envelope

Typically, mining data centers use buildings that are constructed of lightweight materials-including the exterior walls, roof, and windows—such as a storage facility or warehouse. This construction is akin to a Level 1 basic facility as defined in the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) 942 Standard. A Level 1 basic facility has the least resiliency of the four levels in terms of systems reliability, handling extreme weather events, security, and many other criteria. The standard further defines a Level 1 basic facility as being prone to operational errors or spontaneous failures of site infrastructure components that result in a data center disruption. A thorough risk assessment and analysis is necessary when contemplating constructing this type of data center, as power/cooling outages or damage to the structure could lead to a catastrophic outcome.

A Level 1 basic facility data center will have little or no redundancy in the cooling systems. Lower reliability systems do not use redundant equipment, such as pumps, chillers, and air-handling equipment. In this scenario, mechanical rooms are smaller because there is less equipment. This "found" space will be used for mining servers, which is advantageous for the mining operation but increases the required power and cooling capacity. The inside of the facility is typically a large, high-bay warehouse-style interior, which allows for the flexibility and working space necessary when installing thousands of mining servers.

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