This is a post I’ve started three or four times, with different aims and detail, but since I haven’t gotten it posted and people keep asking, I thought I’d start with a simple build plan and some caveats and considerations.
Where I refer to a ‘rig’ here, it’s simply a system dedicated to, or purposed for, mining cryptocurrency of some sort. It might be a single board computer, or a dedicated device, or a PC with one video card (or just a good cpu), or an open frame build with lots of GPUs and a beefy power supply.
Big Hairy Audacious Caveats
The numbers in this article, from prices to currency rates, are based on the time of writing (which may have been a while before the time of posting). They are not guaranteed to last even as long as it takes for this article to post. I am not advising on the value or prospects of any mining or cryptocurrency. You may gain money, lose money, or break even, or your entire city may sink into the ground like a big ole glowing gopher, if you engage in cryptocurrency mining on any level. Do so at your own risk.
See the sidebar: A note about mining pools
See the other sidebar: Setting up your cryptocurrency wallet
Givens and Druthers
There are a lot of options out there, from multi-thousand-dollar ASIC miners for Bitcoin to sub-$50 single board computers that can mine Verium or the like. Your budget will determine a lot of the details of your rig, and your power cost may influence it as well. It’s also worth keeping family approval requirements in mind, since an Antminer may be noisy and generate a lot of heat, whereas a Raspberry Pi or ODROID might fit better behind something in your living room.
You can build a starter rig with one GPU, and depending on the GPU, you might be able to bring in $10-20 a week or more from that. Considering that you can do this with an existing PC and operating system, it may be an economical way to get your feet wet, and it won’t require messing with special power supplies, excessive cooling, or riser cards.
If you’re looking to impress people or make a lot of money, well, good luck. But you’ll be looking at open frame systems with riser cables or even multiplexers for PCIe. That’s beyond the scope of this post.
Building your basic rig
GPU mining doesn’t require much compute power or RAM. You need a CPU and memory of course, since you’re going to run an operating system. But you don’t need an i9 processor or a lot of RAM to get started. The RAM doesn’t even have to be all that fast, which is nice, considering DDR4 RAM is still over $10/GB.
The top system in this photo is an older Supermicro C7SIM-Q with an Intel Core i3-540 processor and 4GB of RAM ($85 on Craigslist), driving a pair of NVIDIA cards with a 550W power supply. The bottom is a Shuttle SH67H3 with a Core i7-3770S and a 300W supply (a bit expensive, but bought many years ago for another purpose), driving one AMD card. Both of these are overkill; if you have enough power to drive your video cards, a Core 2 Duo with 4GB of RAM will be enough as well.
If you want something moderate to start with though, let’s go with that SH67H3 in a pre-built model on Amazon. Here’s one that has a quad-core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive, and Windows 10 Professional for $300 shipped.
All you need to add to this system is a graphics card that’s capable of mining your chosen currency.
Choosing a Currency
There are thousands of cryptocurrencies out there, ranging from Bitcoin that everyone’s heard of, to WhopperCoin from Burger King Russia. Some people make a living following a lot of them. For this conversation, we’ll look at four. And we’ll gloss over some of the distinctions between algorithms and currencies, although there’s a lot of coverage on those elsewhere.
Bitcoin (BTC) is the oldest cryptocurrency, and the least profitable for small operators. It uses the SHA256 algorithm. You cannot efficiently mine it with GPUs anymore, although some services like Nicehash will let you mine using other algorithms and pay you out in BTC.
ZCash (ZEC) is a popular currency that can be GPU-mined still. You can mine with a 2GB or larger GPU, or with your CPU, or both.
Ethereum (ETH) is another currency that’s very GPU-friendly (and ASIC-unfriendly, meaning those $6000 ASIC miners from the East won’t kick you out of the game). You do need to have a 4GB or larger GPU, because a feature called the DAG (Directed Acyclic Graph) has to fit into the video card’s memory. Today the DAG is around 2.4GBytes, and it will grow every couple of weeks. Someday it may outgrow the 4GB cards, but that’s probably a year off if not more.
Monero (XMR) is yet another currency which can be mined with CPU or GPU (or both).
We’re going to plan for Ethereum in this write-up, but if you build to these ideas, you can change to ZCash, Monero, or any number of others.
Choosing a GPU
GPUs suitable for cryptocurrency mining have become scarce and painfully expensive, so you may have a challenge finding them for a good price. If you can’t find a suitable 4GB card, consider a 2GB card (at least a GTX 950 or RX550) and ZCash or Monero above.
The AMD RADEON RX560 4GB is a good entry point (XFX’s version, single fan with 6-pin power, is shown to the right), and I’ve used a couple of them in the past few months. There are several brands and designs, ranging from a single-fan model that’s powered only by the motherboard, to 2-3 fan designs that require an extra power connection from your power supply. If you ever plan to scale past 1-2 cards, make sure the cards you buy have a 6-pin or 8-pin power connector.
This ASUS card is third-party-only for $200 at Amazon as of this writing (it was $140 just a couple of months ago). You can find the XFX version for a bit higher price ($210 as of this writing, up from $140ish just 2 months ago) at some Best Buy stores. There is an RX 550 4GB card for $180 that’s a bit slower, but may be easier to find because of that.
You can also go with the PNY GTX 1050Ti for $210. I see about 12 MH/s on the tuned 1050Ti vs 14MH/s on a tuned XFX RX 560, so it’s not that bad of a difference, although if you can find a card under $200, that’s better.
GPU shopping on secondary markets – another caveat
You may also want to look on eBay, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace for cards. The obvious caveats about eBay purchases apply, and if someone’s run a card at heavy overclocking for months it may not have as much life left in it.
Also be aware that there are often eBay listings for Buy-It-Now deals that are 1/3 or less of the going price for the cards. These are almost certainly scams, and often get taken down within minutes. You are very unlikely to get a good mining GPU for less than $150 even used, so if you see a card that sells used for $800 listed new in box for $83.99, or something listed at an almost-too-low price with stock photos only, just pass on it. It’s a scam.
Obviously, if you have the budget to get better cards, you’ll find higher-priced cards will give you better results. My RX 570 cards are about twice the performance of the RX 560, and my GTX 1060 cards have about 60% better performance than the 1050 Ti.
Choosing a mining platform/OS
You can mine easily on Windows (7, 8.1, 10) or Linux (Ubuntu or Debian probably). You’ll have to install AMD or NVIDIA drivers and APU/CUDA drivers on top of the base OS, but there are plenty of cheat sheets on doing this.
If you’re building your own platform, you need mining software. For Ethereum, you’ll want to look at Claymore’s Miner (for AMD) or Genoil’s ethminer (for NVIDIA). Note that some antivirus software will detect these as malware, since some sites have been known to inject mining software. Be careful if you override these settings.
You’ll also need to use a mining pool (see the mining pool post), so that you get a share of the proceeds even if you don’t single-handedly find new coins. I’ve used DwarfPool, Ethermine, and Nanopool. You will also want a wallet and/or an exchange account, but we’ll get to that in another sidebar soon.
Custom Mining Platforms
Ethos is a one-time $40 per rig (there are discounts for 3+ licenses purchased at a time); Simplemining asks $2/mo per rig. I’ve used Ethos and I find it works quite well, especially when you don’t necessarily know your way around Linux video drivers and/or overclocking (or don’t want to bother with the gory details).
I have friends who swear by Simplemining, but I haven’t used it yet–it is available for a free trial if you’re curious. Both should handle miner upgrades, driver and compute platform software installs, and configuration of multiple systems.
In any event, you don’t need a lot of diskspace; Ethos and Simplemining will have plenty of room if you have a 16GB USB drive or 16GB SSD; I’ve mined from 8GB USB sticks with Ubuntu. Windows, well, better get a 1TB drive for that. 🙂
I would recommend using USB 3.0 drives both as your install source (i.e. load an ISO on with Rufus) and destination, even if the computer only has USB 2.0. Installing from a USB 2.0 drive on some of my Xeon boxes was painful and took five times as long.
What not to do
Generally, don’t mine on a laptop. If you have an Alienware or similar laptop, it can probably handle the additional load (or you can use the Graphics Amplifier to use an external GPU). But most laptops aren’t meant to have the GPU running full bore, full time.
Don’t mix brands of GPUs in a single rig. It is possible to run NVIDIA and AMD in a single rig, with some boards and software, but it can be harder to troubleshoot driver issues and conflicts. You can mix models within a brand, like putting a pair of RX570 and a pair of RX560 in one rig, or a GTX 1050Ti and a GTX 1060 in one rig. But until you’re much better at this than I am, don’t cross the streams.
Don’t tinker too often if you’re looking for revenue. I’m still learning this one, but if you get a stable setup, let it run for a while. You’re less likely to break things, more likely to see the performance and potential profit sooner, and you can think about tinkering on your second rig while the first one earns you some money.
Don’t expect to get rich. You might not even break even, depending on power costs in your area. Most of the calculations I’ve done have shown a 6-9 month break-even point on GPUs or miners. That’s a good reason to keep the surrounding PC as cheap as possible; even if that $1000 special at Costco would work pretty well, it will add 3-6 months to your break-even time. Of course, if you’re going to use it as your main PC anyway, that may not be a bad idea. And systems with pre-installed GPUs may be an easier way to get the good cards, rather than paying 2-4x on eBay compared to what they cost in stores 6 months ago.
Where do we go from here?
This is a short blast to get some of the basic ideas out. I’d welcome your comments and questions, whether you’ve read one of my earlier drafts, or worked from this one, or blazed your own trail to mining excellence.
I’ll probably write another post later this month talking about revenue, card choices, wallets and exchanges, and maybe a bit more about coin choices and cpu mining as well. Until then, happy mining, and I’ll see you in the comments below.
If these posts help you, feel free to visit our “support” page, or you can send some Ether to 0x0055AE64F55df4Ae3e7BE0629537Eedf1adECba4