Usually when a company claims that their video game console is practically a supercomputer in itself those of us with half a brain just write it off as so much marketing hyperbole, but in the case of Sony’s PS3 it’s kind of true:
As the architect of this research, Dr. Gaurav Khanna is employing his so-called “gravity grid” of PS3s to help measure these theoretical gravity waves—ripples in space-time that travel at the speed of light—that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity predicted would emerge when such an event takes place.
It turns out that the PS3 is ideal for doing precisely the kind of heavy computational lifting Khanna requires for his project, and the fact that it’s a relatively open platform makes programming scientific applications feasible.
“The interest in the PS3 really was for two main reasons,” explains Khanna, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth who specializes in computational astrophysics. “One of those is that Sony did this remarkable thing of making the PS3 an open platform, so you can in fact run Linux on it and it doesn’t control what you do.”
He also says that the console’s Cell processor, co-developed by Sony, IBM and Toshiba, can deliver massive amounts of power, comparable even to that of a supercomputer—if you know how to optimize code and have a few extra consoles lying around that you can string together.
“The PS3/Linux combination offers a very attractive cost-performance solution whether the PS3s are distributed (like Sony and Stanford’s Folding@home initiative) or clustered together (like Khanna’s), says Sony’s senior development manager of research and development, Noam Rimon.
In the past the good doctor has had to rely on grants from the NSF to purchase time on supercomputers at upwards of $5,000 per program session. In comparison buying eight 60GB PS3s is just a $3,200 investment except he didn’t think the NSF would give a grant to buy a bunch of game consoles. So he did a little work on his code and showed it to Sony and talked them into donating the PS3s he needed which is probably a great marketing move on Sony’s part.
“Once I was able to get to the point that I had this kind of performance from a single PS3, I think that’s when Sony started paying attention,” Khanna says of his optimized code.
Khanna says that his gravity grid has been up and running for a little over a month now and that, crudely speaking, his eight consoles are equal to about 200 of the supercomputing nodes he used to rely on.
“Basically, it’s almost like a replacement,” he says. “I don’t have to use that supercomputer anymore, which is a good thing.”
“For the same amount of money—well, I didn’t pay for it, but even if you look into the amount of funding that would go into buying something like eight PS3s—for the same amount of money I can do these runs indefinitely.”
I wonder how long it’ll be before Sony starts packing up what amounts to a standard PS3 in a less flashy case to offer to research scientists looking for a low-cost high-performance computing solution. It may be that even if the PS3 isn’t on top of the video game sales charts this generation that Sony could still make a tidy profit off of it if they play their cards right.