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What is Bitcoin Mining?

Bitcoin mining is the processing of transactions in the digital currency system, in which the records of current Bitcoin transactions, known as a blocks, are added to the record of past transactions, known as the block chain.

A Bitcoin is defined by the digitally signed record of its transactions, starting with its creation. The block is an encrypted hash proof of work, created in a compute-intensive process. Miners use software that accesses their processing capacity to solve transaction-related algorithms . In return, they are awarded a certain number of Bitcoins per block. The block chain prevents attempts to spend a Bitcoin more than once -- otherwise the digital currency could be counterfeited by copy and paste.

Originally, Bitcoin mining was conducted on the CPUs of individual computers, with more cores and greater speed resulting in more profitability. After that, the system became dominated by multi-graphics card systems, then field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and finally application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), in the attempt to find more hashes with less electrical power usage.

Due to this constant escalation, it has become hard for prospective new miners to start. This adjustable difficulty is an intentional mechanism created to prevent inflation. To get around that problem, individuals often work in mining pools.

Bitcoin generally started with individuals and small organizations mining. At that time, start-up could be enabled by a single high-end gaming system. Now, however, larger mining organizations might spend tens of thousands on one high-performance, specialized computer.

How Does Bitcoin Mining Work?

Here's the catch. In order for bitcoin miners to actually earn bitcoin from verifying transactions, two things have to occur. First, they must verify 1 megabyte (MB) worth of transactions, which can theoretically be as small as 1 transaction but are more often several thousand, depending on how much data each transaction stores. This is the easy part.

Second, in order to add a block of transactions to the blockchain, miners must solve a complex computational math problem, also called a "proof of work." What they're actually doing is trying to come up with a 64-digit hexadecimal number, called a "hash," that is less than or equal to the target hash. Basically, a miner's computer spits out hashes at a rate of megahashes per second (MH/s), gigahashes per second (GH/s), or even terahashes per second (TH/s) depending on the unit, guessing all possible 64-digit numbers until they arrive at a solution. In other words, it's a gamble.

The difficulty level of the most recent block at the time of writing is more than 13 trillion. That is, the chance of a computer producing a hash below the target is 1 in 13 trillion. To put that in perspective, you are about 44,500 times more likely to win the Powerball jackpot with a single lottery ticket than you are to pick the correct hash on a single try. Fortunately, mining computer systems spit out many, many more hash possibilities than that. Nonetheless, mining for bitcoin requires massive amounts of energy and sophisticated computing rigs, but more about that later as well.

The difficulty level is adjusted every 2016 blocks, or roughly every 2 weeks, with the goal of keeping rates of mining constant. That is, the more miners there are competing for a solution, the more difficult the problem will become. The opposite is also true. If computational power is taken off of the network, the difficulty adjusts downward to make mining easier.