PlayStations power Air Force 'supercomputer'

Research lab builds machine entirely from off-the-shelf components

The Air Force Research Laboratory has built a supercomputer driven by several hundred Sony PlayStation 3 consoles, reports Warren Peace in Stars and Stripes.

AFRL has assembled 336 PlayStation 3s in a cluster and, together with off-the-shelf graphic processing units, created a supercomputer nearly 100,000 times faster than high-end computer processors currently on the market.

It's not the first time the gaming console has been harnessed for more serious uses. The University of Massachusets Dartmouth, for example, in 2007 built a powerful computer out of eight PlayStations to study black holes.

The technology concept is made possible by the console’s cell processor, which was designed to integrate with other cell processors to multiply processing power and crunch numbers.


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As a result, the Air Force researchers were able to use that power to run applications such as the back-projection synthetic aperture radar imaging formation, high-definition video image processing, and neuromorphic computing, a method of replicating human nervous systems.

Mimicking humans helps the machine recognize images during tasks such as target recognition, the officials said.

Even though it replicates some attributes of a supercomputer, the arrangement falls considerably short of high-end supercomputers, AFRL officials said. For starters, the way the consoles connect online or to each other is relatively slow compared to regular supercomputing setups. Thus, the researchers are limited in what types of programs they can efficiently run on the PS3 supercomputer, known as the 500 TeraFLOPS Heterogeneous Cluster. The system is located at AFRL’s Affiliated Resource Center in Rome, N.Y.

The system, which uses mostly off-the-shelf components, is a relatively inexpensive and green machine, the officials said.

It uses 300 to 320 kilowatts at full speed and about 10 percent to 30 percent of that in standby mode, whereas most supercomputers use 5 megawatts. What’s more, much of the time the cluster will only be running the nodes it needs and will be shut down when not in use.

The team that built the supercomputer has ordered 1,700 more consoles to augment the existing cluster’s power. The additional PlayStation 3s were ordered through the Defense Department’s High Performance Computing Modernization Program.

“Supercomputers used to be unique with unique processors,” said Richard Linderman, AFRL’s senior scientist for advanced computing architectures. “By taking advantage of a growing market, the gaming market, we are bringing the price performance to just $2 to $3 per gigaflops.”

For more on military supercomputers, see "DARPA ponders taking supercomputing to the extreme."

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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