Good luck building a VR PC: Ethereum miners are buying all the GPUs

Once the tap turns on again, GPUs will restore PCs and edge computing to glory


Last month, one of my friends noted he’d been having enormous trouble trying to buy the components to assemble a virtual-reality-ready PC. Motherboards, memory, CPUs and solid state drives were easy to find, but the one absolutely essential component - a beefy GPU to drive a head-mounted display at a vomit-preventing 90 Hz - he couldn’t find anywhere. Every online vendor seemed to be out of stock, with long waiting times and stern warnings restricting purchases to ‘ONLY TWO PER HOUSEHOLD’. Why would anyone need two graphics cards? One for each eye?

This shortage had developed suddenly, over the month of May, in a curious lock-step with a seemingly unrelated development - an enormous rise in the price of a cryptocurrency known as Ethereum. A successor to Bitcoin, this second-generation of ‘magic internet money’ algorithmically grows its total money supply, rather like a central bank. Rather than employ legions of macroeconomists and quantitative easing, Ethereum demands ‘proof of work‘ - solutions to a cryptographic puzzle that require billions of educated guesses. Those guesses - you guessed it - can be tremendously accelerated by the very same GPUs that my friend had tried to buy.

Economics, it turns out, was the culprit. As Ethereum ballooned to its highest historical value (nearly USD $400 for a single ETH), it became a wise investment to buy a cheap PC with a beefy power supply, stock it up with GPUs, and let it compute its way into profits. One such PC, could - in the right circumstances - earn up to $10,000 a year, for a $2500 outlay. The formula, simply put: GPUs + electricity + time = profits!

Now that all the GPUs have been sucked into get-rich-quick schemes, what happens to a commercial and enterprise VR marketplace still trying to find its footing? This is less about kids at home playing PC games (though they’re clearly affected by this as well) than a story of all the other things we’ve come to depend on from our GPUs. These fast-and-efficient successors to the ‘math coprocessor’ (remember when those were a thing?) have become the single most important elements in computing.

While graphics provide the obvious use case for GPUs, they're also the accelerant for all sorts of workloads.

The rise of VR, machine learning - even this ‘tulipmania’ quality GPU shortage - points toward a larger shift. The generational tug-of-war between the centre and the periphery. PCs subverted mainframes, then the cloud drew everything back toward the centre. While the cloud hasn’t quite peaked, the next swing of the pendulum, into ‘edge computing’, enabled by highly performant GPUs, looks to be well underway.

Moving away from the general-purpose CPU (Intel has been four years at 14nm), this shift to the edge will make the GPU more important than the CPU. The GPU is central to all the roles we expect 21st century computers to fill. This may be the reason Apple recently ditched chip designer Imagination in favour of their own, home-grown GPU. Within a few years, every computing device of consequence - supercomputer, desktop or smartphone - will be driven by architectures and operating systems that center around the GPU.

Meanwhile, the global shortage of GPUs implies fat profits for nVidia and AMD as they shovel their chips into the maw of a market hungry to turn maths into capacity - and money. The PC, nearly driven into irrelevance by tablet computing, comes roaring back as a platform for visualisation and learning, transformed by the GPU into a power-hungry, expensive, finicky and absolutely essential tool for modern business. The pendulum swings again, and suddenly the edges are (yet again) the most interesting place to be, the place where the real work of computing happens.

For the moment, though, my friend has to patiently wait out this shortage. The chips will come: there’s too much money on the table. And as they arrive in their billions, the entire face of computing will change completely. ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Developers offered browser-based fun in VSCode.dev and Java action in Visual Studio Code

    Looking at code here, there and (almost) everywhere

    Microsoft has whipped the covers off yet another take on code-in-the-browser with a lightweight version of Visual Studio Code, while unveiling the version 1.0 release of support for Red Hat Java in the freebie source wrangler.

    It comes after last month's preview of the code editor that runs entirely in the browser, and will doubtless have some users pondering the difference between this and Microsoft-owned GitHub's github.dev, which also pops a development environment into the browser. One of the biggest of those differences is a lack of compulsory integration with the VS source-shack; this is unavoidable with github.dev (the clue is, after all, in the URL.)

    VSCode.dev, on the other hand, will permit the opening up of a file from a local device (if the browser allows it and supports the File System Access API) in what looks for all the world like an instance of Visual Studio Code, except surrounded by the gubbins of a browser.

    Continue reading
  • No swearing or off-brand comments: AWS touts auto-moderation messaging API

    Automate everything – but while human moderation is hard, robot moderation tends not to work

    AWS has introduced channel flows to its Chime messaging and videoconferencing API, the idea being to enable automatic moderation of profanity or content that "does not fit" the corporate brand.

    Although Amazon Chime has a relatively small market share in the crowded videoconferencing market, the Chime SDK is convenient for developers building applications that include videoconferencing or messaging, competing with SDKs and services from the likes of Twilio or Microsoft's Azure Communication Services. In other words, this is aimed mainly at corporate developers building applications or websites that include real-time messaging, audio or videoconferencing.

    The new feature is for real-time text chat rather than video and is called messaging channel flows. It enables developers to create code that intercepts and processes messaging before they are delivered. The assumption is that this processing code will run on AWS Lambda, its serverless platform.

    Continue reading
  • UK government puts £5bn on the table in trawl for public sector networks services

    I dream of wires, say Whitehall’s big buyers

    The UK's central government procurement agency is chumming the waters around the market's swimmers, hoping to tempt suppliers into providing a range of computer network services and kit with a £5bn tender.

    The buying spree, which will officially begin when a framework agreement starts in fiscal 2023, involves a large spread of hardware, software and services around IT networks. Included are categories such as networking, internet and intranet software packages, network interfaces, network operating system software development services and so on.

    Crown Commercial Service, the cross-government buying organisation that sits within the Cabinet Office, has launched what is known as a "prior information notice" to start talking to suppliers before it forms the official competition to be on the framework: a group of contracted suppliers from which a huge number of public sector bodies can buy.

    Continue reading
  • Informatica UKI veep was rightfully sacked over Highways England $5k golf jolly, says tribunal

    Underling took customer on bucket list trip - and VP signed it off without checking

    Informatica's former UK & Ireland vice president was correctly sacked after letting a salesman take Highways England's executive IT director on a $5,000 golfing jaunt, the Employment Appeal Tribunal has ruled.

    Not only did Derek Thompson breach Informatica's anti-corruption policies but he also warned underlings to "be discreet" about the jolly – and told HR investigators "Why does anyone do any customer entertainment?" when asked how playing golf benefited the business.

    Thompson lost his appeal against a judge's earlier ruling [PDF] that his October 2017 sacking was reasonable, with the Employment Appeal Tribunal publishing its judgment [PDF] last week.

    Continue reading
  • Boeing's Starliner capsule corroded due to high humidity levels, NASA explains, and the spaceship won't fly this year

    Meanwhile Elon's running orbital tourist trips and ISS crew missions

    Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule, designed to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, will not fly until the first half of next year at the earliest, as the manufacturing giant continues to tackle an issue with the spacecraft’s valves.

    Things have not gone smoothly for Boeing. Its Starliner program has suffered numerous setbacks and delays. Just in August, a second unmanned test flight was scrapped after 13 of 24 valves in the spacecraft’s propulsion system jammed. In a briefing this week, Michelle Parker, chief engineer of space and launch at Boeing, shed more light on the errant components.

    Boeing believes the valves malfunctioned due to weather issues, we were told. Florida, home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center where the Starliner is being assembled and tested, is known for hot, humid summers. Parker explained that the chemicals from the spacecraft’s oxidizer reacted with water condensation inside the valves to form nitric acid. The acidity corroded the valves, causing them to stick.

    Continue reading
  • Research finds consumer-grade IoT devices showing up... on corporate networks

    Considering the slack security of such kit, it's a perfect storm

    Increasing numbers of "non-business" Internet of Things devices are showing up inside corporate networks, Palo Alto Networks has warned, saying that smart lightbulbs and internet-connected pet feeders may not feature in organisations' threat models.

    According to Greg Day, VP and CSO EMEA of the US-based enterprise networking firm: "When you consider that the security controls in consumer IoT devices are minimal, so as not to increase the price, the lack of visibility coupled with increased remote working could lead to serious cybersecurity incidents."

    The company surveyed 1,900 IT decision-makers across 18 countries including the UK, US, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia, finding that just over three quarters (78 per cent) of them reported an increase in non-business IoT devices connected to their org's networks.

    Continue reading
  • Huawei appears to have quenched its thirst for power in favour of more efficient 5G

    Never mind the performance, man, think of the planet

    MBB Forum 2021 The "G" in 5G stands for Green, if the hours of keynotes at the Mobile Broadband Forum in Dubai are to be believed.

    Run by Huawei, the forum was a mixture of in-person event and talking heads over occasionally grainy video and kicked off with an admission by Ken Hu, rotating chairman of the Shenzhen-based electronics giant, that the adoption of 5G – with its promise of faster speeds, higher bandwidth and lower latency – was still quite low for some applications.

    Despite the dream five years ago, that the tech would link up everything, "we have not connected all things," Hu said.

    Continue reading
  • What is self-learning AI and how does it tackle ransomware?

    Darktrace: Why you need defence that operates at machine speed

    Sponsored There used to be two certainties in life - death and taxes - but thanks to online crooks around the world, there's a third: ransomware. This attack mechanism continues to gain traction because of its phenomenal success. Despite admonishments from governments, victims continue to pay up using low-friction cryptocurrency channels, emboldening criminal groups even further.

    Darktrace, the AI-powered security company that went public this spring, aims to stop the spread of ransomware by preventing its customers from becoming victims at all. To do that, they need a defence mechanism that operates at machine speed, explains its director of threat hunting Max Heinemeyer.

    According to Darktrace's 2021 Ransomware Threat Report [PDF], ransomware attacks are on the rise. It warns that businesses will experience these attacks every 11 seconds in 2021, up from 40 seconds in 2016.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021