Employees work on bitcoin mining computers at Bitminer Factory in Florence, Italy.

Alessandro Bianchi | Reuters

Software used in bitcoin mining just got its first upgrade since late 2012, and a coalition of companies including payments giant Block (formerly Square) is trying to help push the open-source protocol forward to become an industry standard.

The move could help open bitcoin mining to more participants by supporting lower-quality internet connections, as well as improving security so miners get properly compensated for their work.

Bitcoin operates on a proof-of-work mining model, meaning that miners around the world run high-powered computers to create new bitcoin and validate transactions. Mining requires professional-grade equipment, some technical know-how, a lot of electricity and a special kind of software. 

Rather than directly accessing the bitcoin protocol, the vast majority of miners today work through an intermediary protocol called Stratum, which facilitates communication between the bitcoin network, miners, and the mining pools that combine the hashing power of thousands of miners all over the world.

Miners use Stratum to submit their work and to collect a reward if they successfully complete a new block of transactions.

On Tuesday, a coalition of bitcoin developers is releasing version 2 of Stratum under an open-source license for the mining industry to evaluate and test.

It will take some work to convince the mining industry to adopt the new protocol, so Spiral — a subsidiary of Jack Dorsey’s payments company Block (formerly Square) — is teaming up with bitcoin mining company Braiins to launch a group to test and fine-tune the open-source software before they push mass adoption.

What the upgrade does

Steve Lee, the lead at Spiral, tells CNBC there are several significant benefits to the upgrade, including cutting down on the use of data.

Currently, it is common for each mining rig in a large farm to directly connect to a pool. This setup wastes a lot of energy. Lee says that Stratum V2 supports a proxy that aggregates all the connections and only establishes one connection with the pool.

The process of sending that data is also changing to a more efficient method.

“All told, much less data needs to be transmitted between miners and pools, and this could help miners in remote regions of the world with poor internet,” noted Lee.

The upgrade is designed to improve security, as well. Today, it is possible to steal hash rate from a miner, which can lead to some miners losing money. Hash rate is a term for the collective computing power of the bitcoin network. To resolve this, Lee says Stratum V2 introduces a standard security mechanism with authentication and encryption between miners and pools.

The version being released Tuesday is for initial testing, and in early November, a more robust version will come out that supports additional functionality, including job negotiation — a “feature that represents a historic shift in the censorship-resistant mechanics of bitcoin mining by replacing a pool’s responsibility of assigning work to miners with the ability for miners to select their own work,” according to a joint statement released by Spiral and Braiins.

There are orders of magnitude more miners than pools, so if miners select transactions it is far more decentralized than just a handful of pools, Lee explained.

“Working for industrywide adoption of the upgraded Stratum protocol is one of the most important developments in improving the decentralization and censorship resistance of bitcoin’s architecture,” Lee said.

As for timing, the pilot and integration testing will happen this fall, and next year, the upgraded protocol will likely see greater adoption once miners and pools are confident it is working well.

“I’d anticipate a gradual increase in hash rate in 2023,” Lee told CNBC. “Reaching 10% hash rate by the end of 2023 would be a great success,” continued Lee.

Lee added that it will likely take several years to see the latest version of Stratum replace the original.

“Miners know the benefits of upgrading to Stratum V2 very well, but pushing the entire mining industry over some of the remaining development and adoption hurdles is a big task,” said Jan Capek, co-founder of Braiins.

“Universal standards for running and building Stratum V2 and the efforts of this working group to push the industry forward will provide the momentum bitcoin needs to finally upgrade from a version of its mining protocol that was built a decade ago,” continued Capek.

Similar to the Lightning Network, which is a technology built on top of bitcoin’s base layer to make payments more efficient, there will be different implementations of Stratum V2. However, the open-source version released Tuesday will make it easier to collectively test out the technology. It will also ensure that the various projects can interact with one another.

Block jumping into mining

Tuesday’s announcement is part of Block’s larger push into the bitcoin mining industry.

On the sidelines of the Bitcoin 2022 conference in Miami in April, digital assets infrastructure company Blockstream and Block announced that they were breaking ground on a solar- and battery-powered bitcoin mine in Texas that uses solar and storage technology from Tesla.

Tesla’s 3.8 megawatt solar PV array and 12 megawatt-hour Megapack will power the facility.

Block is also independently working on a project to make bitcoin mining more distributed and efficient.

The idea of making the mining process more accessible has to do with more than just creating new bitcoin, according to Block’s general manager for hardware, Thomas Templeton. Instead, he says the company sees it as a long-term need for a future that is fully decentralized and permissionless.

“Mining needs to be more distributed,” Dorsey wrote in a tweet in October, when he first floated the idea. “The more decentralized this is, the more resilient the bitcoin network becomes.”

Toward that end, the company is solving one major barrier to entry: Mining rigs are hard to find, expensive and delivery can be unpredictable. Block says it is open to making a new ASIC, which is the specialized gear used to mine for bitcoin.

The project is being incubated within Block’s hardware team, which is beginning to build out a core engineering team of system, ASIC and software designers led by Afshin Rezayee.