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How Long Can Siacoin Outrun ASIC Manufacturers?

Some people really don’t like Jihan Wu. Bitmain, which produces the inexpensive, industrial-grade chips that spoiled the home mining game, is now unwelcome in yet another crypto community. Siacoin, an online network for distributed storage, announced a protocol upgrade to “brick” the Bitmain and Innosilicon hardware which currently threaten to dominate Sia mining.

The surprise release of specialized Siacoin ASICs, which allow mining to be dominated by a few deep-pocketed players, was considered “a direct attack on the community,” wrote lead developer David Vorick in the Sia blog.

Siacoin is not unfriendly towards ASICs, and a community-led effort raised several million dollars to finance to finance their development by Nebulous, Siacoin’s parent company. After over a year of development, the Obelisk SC1 launched earlier this summer.

But they weren’t the only ones to do so. Months before Obelisk launched, Bitmain revealed its own ASIC hardware, and Innosilicon followed shortly after.

Bitmain’s release was particularly alarming, Vorick wrote, noting:

The first one, Bitmain, did not announce their product until 10 days before shipping, effectively disrupting a multi-million dollar project from the community without warning and nearly causing a civil war.

Machina Non Grata

Bitmain’s ASIC reveal prompted a bitter fight within the Siacoin community, including some demands for a hard fork.

This isn’t the first crypto club to put Bitmain on the blacklist. Earlier this year, Monero developers announced an emergency hard fork after Bitmain announced its first CryptoNote ASIC device, with the expectation of future algorithm changes to prevent ASIC development. The issue is also being argued among Ethereum developers.

ASICs are a touchy point for lower-cap cryptocurrencies. Although GPU mining is ostensibly more democratic than professional hardware, it also weakens the network to 51% attacks. Several ASIC-resistant currencies, like Bitcoin Gold and Verge, have been subject to double-spending attacks.

Sia’s Kill Switch

But Siacoin isn’t saying goodbye to ASICs altogether. “[A]n ASIC manufacturer monopoly is strongly preferable to being a GPU mined coin,” Vorick wrote. “We believe that embracing an ASIC monopoly is better than resisting ASICs altogether.”

In order to secure a temporary monopoly against “unethical” ASIC producers, the Obelisk miner came with a cleverly-hidden trap door. “Basically blake2b is a circuit,” Vorick told Coindesk. “We added just a tiny extension in a clever place that you wouldn’t just naively think to add that extension.”

That extension to the circuit will allow Obelisk machines to continue working after the hard fork, giving Nebulous a three- or four-month head start against the next generation of competing miners.

That lead won’t last forever, but it may allow the mining monopoly to fall to a company whose incentives are more in-line with Siacoin’s success. “So long as the new manufacturer is contributing to the health of the Sia mining ecosystem and avoiding abusive practices, the seat of power will be passed along gracefully,”  Vorick wrote, but concluded with an ominous warning: 

In the event that we need to brick another manufacturer in the short term, Obelisk has a chip design prepared that we can tape-out and use to defend the network. 

The author has investments in Ethereum.

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