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The Bitcoin Mini is more than just a hardware node

27 Oct 2015, 00:00, ,

The bitcoin computer hardware space has an interesting new entry this month, something that looks like a simple hardware node, but in actually is a full developer's environment, much like the pricey offering from 21 Inc.

Developers use the 21 Bitcoin Computer to quickly make any app, service, or device bitcoin-payable.” – 21 Inc

Omaha-based startup Mini Computing recently unveiled a consumer-ready hardware node for the bitcoin network, called the Bitcoin Mini. It’s a tiny, open source, fully-encased, Raspberry Pi-based computer that you can run anywhere with an internet connection, supporting the Bitcoin network without mining in any way. Although it started shipping in mid-October, retailing for US$149, almost everyone who has heard of it so far has been referring to it as a “hardware node,” underestimating its’ capabilities.

Hardware nodes are simply physical computers running the bitcoin core client software, that hosts a full copy of the bitcoin blockchain and is well-connected to the network. It doesn’t imply mining in any way, although all miners need to use one, either on the same system or as part of a mining pool.

The more nodes that exist on the bitcoin network, the more robust it. Each one improves decentralization, redundancy, and the connectivity of the overall network. These nodes can run on any computer, and you can make one yourself for less than $50 in parts with a Raspberry Pi or similar mini-computer.

Currently, the network has around 5,500 bitcoin core client nodes showing as available, a statistic you can watch in real time at the Bitnodes site, which was recently purchased by 21 Inc.

Before changing ownership, Bitnodes used to sell their own Raspberry Pi-based hardware node, which looks a lot like the Bitcoin Mini. Today, however, that page redirects to a sales page for the 21 Inc “Bitcoin computer” instead.

21 co“The 21 Bitcoin Computer is the first computer with native hardware and software support for the Bitcoin protocol. It provides a constant stream of bitcoin and the software to make that bitcoin useful for buying and selling digital goods. Developers use the 21 Bitcoin Computer to quickly make any app, service, or device bitcoin-payable.”
— – 21 Inc

21 Inc’s $400 hardware computer has been sold from the start as a development platform, where programmers can create new apps that use bitcoin, which could be especially useful for the Internet of Things. Despite including a Raspberry Pi like the others, it’s price is relatively high. But, it also includes an ASIC mining chip, and automatically mines small amounts of bitcoin for the apps running on it to use.

So far, the hardware nodes seemed to only come in two flavors. Either you were just running a simple node for the sake of network performance, or with machines like 21’s, you planned to use it to create apps and run other complex functions, all the while receiving a steady stream of bits while it is online.

Somewhere in-between is where the Mini fits in. It doesn’t have a mining chip, and the creator doesn’t claim it does what 21’s machine can do, but the installed custom software build does allow for a development environment. It appears to be a solid option, at only 1/3 the price of 21’s offering.

“It’s not just a Raspberry Pi,” but a “fully functional Mini computer with Linux, Bitcoin Core and Node JS already running and up-to-date,” explained co-founder Ansel Lindner, in an exclusive interview with Brave New Coin. The Mini also comes with an 8 GB micro SD card for the OS, and a 128 GB flash drive for storage, enough disk space to last until the blockchain is almost twice as large as it is now.

“There is some value in offering a basic full node,” stated Lindner while explaining how the Mini differs from other similar products. “We added a server and a browser GUI, and we’ve started work on our address generator and block explorer.”

Although the functionality offered by the Mini isn’t that far removed from 21’s bitcoin computer, Lindner doesn’t feel comfortable with a direct comparison, “we see that as a welcome accident.” He makes it clear,  he has his eyes on a much larger goal for the Mini, more than it being a mere hardware node.

Ansel Lindner“One of the problems with similar products currently on the market, is that they don’t go far enough. They stop at a full node. We have a long term outlook and are building a solution for a future direction in development. It’s an extensible platform… A platform others could easily grasp and publish packages for.”
— – Ansel Lindner, Mini Computing Co-Founder

Another core strength of the Mini is its open source nature. Lindner explained that all of the software it uses is not only fully open, but is also actively developed. Arch Linux and Node.js were chosen so that Mini is accessible to developers, and anyone else not afraid of a little code.

For the client-facing software, the company has created a web page interface for users, and an open-source address generator to enable them to create secure bitcoin wallets.

“Our primary customers are relative newcomers to bitcoin, of average technical ability, with an understanding of the importance of decentralization and privacy. Our secondary customers are developers with that same understanding.”
— – Lindner

Decentralization of the overall bitcoin environment is a theme Lindner kept coming back to. If he is most proud of any achievement in having built the Mini, it is clearly that the platform offers developers “unique access to a decentralized platform on which to build decentralized apps.”

“Running a Bitcoin Mini is a vote for decentralization and an insurance policy that your bitcoin and the network will still be usable no matter what the company behind an online service chooses to do.”
— – Lindner

Shifting the subject, to the downward trend in the overall node count, Lindner mentioned that the numbers have been headed downhill since the advent of ASIC mining chips and SPV wallets, including most smartphone wallets, which don’t require a full node to work. At the same time, the rise in the mining difficulty ratio has made it economically impractical for the casual user to mine.

Lindner thinks that bringing the node count back up involves finding new reasons to get people interested, which is precisely why he and his partner created a hardware solution that could do much more than just be a node.

But first, getting more nodes out there must be the paramount goal. Lindner was clear that the Mini aims to encourage a large majority of the public to run a full node, without taking the time or having the expertise it takes to get started.

“We want to see a Bitcoin Mini in every university, makers group, and computer club as part of their toolbox. Any discussion or argument about technology in the future won’t be complete if not made with an understanding of the blockchain, bitcoin and cryptography in general. We think getting full nodes everywhere should is a priority for the community.”
— – Lindner


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