Nvidia today announced its new Cryptocurrency Mining Processor (CMP) line of GPUs to "address the specific needs of Ethereum mining" and, hopefully, improve the availability of the best graphics cards in the GeForce product line in the process. The company also limited the mining performance of the soon-to-be-launched RTX 3060 cards to roughly 50% of the normal performance. It sounds like a good move, but there's a lot going on.
Cryptocurrency miners previously had to purchase graphics cards originally intended for PC gaming if they wanted to maximize their operation’s profitability. This can lead to—or exacerbate—GPU shortages whenever a particular coin’s value skyrockets. Right now that coin is Ethereum. CoinDesk's figures put the cryptocurrency's price at $281 in February 2020, but at time of writing it's priced at $1,920. The scramble to join this digital gold rush has worsened the GPU shortage caused by COVID-19.
Nvidia's solution? Give miners their own GPUs. The company said in today's announcement that the CMP line was developed to "help miners build the most efficient data centers while preserving GeForce RTX GPUs for gamers." The resulting Nvidia CMP HX "allows a fully open, airflow-optimized bracket and is configured to allow a greater number of GPUs to be controlled by one CPU." That airflow optimization was partly enabled by ditching unnecessary display ports.
Nvidia said the CMP line also features lower core voltages and frequencies to improve mining efficiency. The new GPUs will be sold through authorized resellers including "ASUS, Colorful, EVGA, Gigabyte, MSI, Palit, and PC Partner." Those optimizations should be decent incentives for cryptocurrency miners to buy CMP products instead of their GeForce counterparts. The proverbial carrot, if you will. And the stick? Deliberately making gaming-focused GPUs worse at mining.
Nvidia explained in today's announcement: "RTX 3060 software drivers are designed to detect specific attributes of the Ethereum cryptocurrency mining algorithm, and limit the hash rate, or cryptocurrency mining efficiency, by around 50 percent." The company didn't say whether or not it plans (we'll get to that in a moment), but Nvidia's latest RTX offerings are currently at the top of our GPU benchmarks hierarchy, and it would be nice if more of them were actually used to play games.
|Ethereum Hash Rate||26 MH/s||36 MH/s||45 MH/s||86 MH/s|
|Power Connectors||1 x 8-pin||1 x 8-pin||2 x 8-pin||2 x 8-pin|
Is this really good news, or is this just Nvidia playing both sides? To be clear, these CMP cards are still the same exact silicon that goes into GeForce and Quadro graphics cards. They don't have video outputs, cooling should be improved (for large-scale data center mining operations), and they're better tuned for efficiency. But every single GPU sold as a CMP card means one less GPU sold as a graphics card. What's perhaps worse is that while miners can still use consumer cards for mining (maybe not the upcoming RTX 3060, depending on how well Nvidia's throttling works), gamers can't use these mining cards for gaming.
Nvidia does state that these GPUs "don't meet the specifications required of a GeForce GPU and, thus, don't impact the availability of GeForce GPUs to gamers." Frankly, that doesn't mean much. What does Nvidia do with a GPU that normally can't be sold as an RTX 3090? They bin it as a 3080, and GA102 chips that can't meet the 3080 requirements can end up in a future 3070 (or maybe a 3070 Ti). The same goes for the rest of the line. Make no mistake: These are GPUs that could have gone into a graphics card. Maybe not a reference 3060 Ti, 3070, 3080, or 3090, but we've seen TU104 chips in RTX 2060 cards, so anything is possible.
Which brings up another big question: What specific GPUs are being used for CMP? The 90HX is almost certainly an Ampere GA102 chip, because it's probably the only one that can reach the 86MH/s target speed. The rest, though, who knows? Turing TU104, TU106, and TU116 GPUs can easily reach those performance figures, and this could be a way to clear out a bunch of older GPUs at premium prices. It could even be a "flavor of the month" approach where Nvidia uses a variety of GPUs that couldn't qualify for use in a GeForce card and sells them as a CMP.
These CMP cards also shouldn't have any use for the RT cores or maybe even Tensor cores in Turing and Ampere, which would be a good way of selling off otherwise 'dud' chips. Look at the 30HX, with 6GB of memory and a 125W TGP. That matches up almost perfectly with a GTX 1660 GDDR6 card.
That brings us to the relative performance and specs. Note that the 90HX lists an Ethereum hash rate of just 86MH/s and a 320W TGP. After a bit of tuning, an RTX 3080 can usually do 94MH/s at 250W or less, so these cards (at least out of the box) aren't any better. That's probably because Nvidia knows running GPUs at high fan speeds and temperatures for 24/7 use leads to component failures. It's why the data center and workstation lines are normally clocked far more conservatively than the consumer line.
It gets worse as you go down the line, though. 50HX only does 45MH/s at 250W — that basically matches the tuned performance of the RTX 2060 Super through RTX 2080 Super, with a TGP that's still twice as high as what we measured. It's also half the speed of an RTX 3080 while potentially still using the same GPU (10GB VRAM). Or maybe it's a TU102 that couldn't work with 11 memory channels, so it's been binned with 10 channels. Either way, who's going to want this? 40HX at 36MH/s and 185W and 30HX at 26MH/s and 125W are equally questionable options.
Of course, we don't have pricing information yet. That's going to be a critical factor. Maybe this is just a way to more easily sell GPUs to miners at inflated prices. Or maybe it's a way to sell otherwise junk silicon to miners are reasonable prices (doubtful). Certainly, miners are paying exorbitant pricing on eBay right now. If the CMP cards cost more than graphics cards using the same GPU, they're not going to sell well.
The driver limiting of mining performance for the upcoming RTX 3060 sounds far more interesting. Nvidia probably can't implement the same restrictions on existing GPUs without facing a class action lawsuit (not to mention miners could just use older drivers), but making future GPUs less attractive to miners should help push them to other options. Maybe that's CMP, maybe it's AMD GPUs, or maybe it's custom ASICs.
Still, there's only a limited number of leading edge wafer starts available, and they're in high demand, so this isn't going to radically improve the situation with graphics card shortages any time soon. But maybe — hopefully! — it will be enough by the time Hopper rolls out in 2022/2023.
This also could open up new computing capabilities by going down the road of dedicated mining cards as even into ASICs, which is where you start to make real performance jumps since those processors are far more effective at mining, but still depends on which cryptocurrency is being mined - ASICs take time to develop for the specific algorithms needed to process (and likely only for specific crypto) but can be far more effective over a PC, while PCs and GPUs have the ability to be more flexible for different currencies but relying on software to help manage the hashing with hardware which makes them slower/less effective than hardware-specific ASIC.
Overall, there are a lot of ASIC manufacturers out there and kind of surprised that Nvidia or AMD have not dipped their toes into this as of yet.
Though it would've been nice to have this from the start.