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The bitcoin network is a peer-to-peer payment network that operates on a cryptographic protocol. The network requires minimal structure to share transactions. An ad hoc decentralized network of volunteers is sufficient. Messages are broadcast on a best effort basis, and nodes can leave and rejoin the network at will. Upon reconnection, a node downloads and verifies new blocks from other nodes to complete its local copy of the blockchain. An actual bitcoin transaction including the fee from a webbased cryptocurrency exchange to a hardware wallet. A bitcoin is defined by a sequence of digitally signed transactions that began with the bitcoin’s creation, as a block reward.
The owner of a bitcoin transfers it by digitally signing it over to the next owner using a bitcoin transaction, much like endorsing a traditional bank check. A payee can examine each previous transaction to verify the chain of ownership. Although it is possible to handle bitcoins individually, it would be unwieldy to require a separate transaction for every bitcoin in a transaction. Transactions are therefore allowed to contain multiple inputs and outputs, allowing bitcoins to be split and combined. This work is often called bitcoin mining. The signature is discovered rather than provided by knowledge. Requiring a proof of work to accept a new block to the blockchain was Satoshi Nakamoto’s key innovation.
The mining process involves identifying a block that, when hashed twice with SHA-256, yields a number smaller than the given difficulty target. For the bitcoin timestamp network, a valid proof of work is found by incrementing a nonce until a value is found that gives the block’s hash the required number of leading zero bits. Once the hashing has produced a valid result, the block cannot be changed without redoing the work. Majority consensus in bitcoin is represented by the longest chain, which required the greatest amount of effort to produce.
If a majority of computing power is controlled by honest nodes, the honest chain will grow fastest and outpace any competing chains. To modify a past block, an attacker would have to redo the proof-of-work of that block and all blocks after it and then surpass the work of the honest nodes. To compensate for increasing hardware speed and varying interest in running nodes over time, the difficulty of finding a valid hash is adjusted roughly every two weeks. If blocks are generated too quickly, the difficulty increases and more hashes are required to make a block and to generate new bitcoins.
Bitcoin mining is a competitive endeavor. Computing power is often bundled together or “pooled” to reduce variance in miner income. Individual mining rigs often have to wait for long periods to confirm a block of transactions and receive payment. This payment depends on the amount of work an individual miner contributed to help find that block.
Bitcoin data centers prefer to keep a low profile, are dispersed around the world and tend to cluster around the availability of cheap electricity. In 2013, Mark Gimein estimated electricity consumption to be about 40. As of 2015, The Economist estimated that even if all miners used modern facilities, the combined electricity consumption would be 166. To lower the costs, bitcoin miners have set up in places like Iceland where geothermal energy is cheap and cooling Arctic air is free. New transactions are broadcast to all nodes. Each miner node collects new transactions into a block. Each miner node works on finding a proof-of-work code for its block.
When a node finds a proof-of-work, it broadcasts the block to all nodes. Receiving nodes validate the transactions it holds and accept only if all are valid. Nodes express their acceptance by moving to work on the next block, incorporating the hash of the accepted block. By convention, the first transaction in a block is a special transaction that produces new bitcoins owned by the creator of the block. This is the incentive for nodes to support the network. It provides the way to move new bitcoins into circulation.
The reward for mining halves every 210,000 blocks. It started at 50 bitcoin, dropped to 25 in late 2012 and to 12. Various potential attacks on the bitcoin network and its use as a payment system, real or theoretical, have been considered. The bitcoin protocol includes several features that protect it against some of those attacks, such as unauthorized spending, double spending, forging bitcoins, and tampering with the blockchain. Other attacks, such as theft of private keys, require due care by users. Unauthorized spending is mitigated by bitcoin’s implementation of public-private key cryptography.