Scientist uses 8 linked PS3s to replace a Supercomputer.

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.

9 thoughts on “Scientist uses 8 linked PS3s to replace a Supercomputer.

  1. Years ago, somebody build a supercomputer out of PS2’s. Instead of the CPU, they used the graphics chip for number crunching. Reminded me of the guys who coded their numerical math problems in Postscript and ran them on the old Apple Laserprinter II, because they were faster than the actual computers they had access to.

  2. I can’t help but wonder if we’ll soon see a story about how the US Defense Department, Commerce Department, or Homeland Security is investigating possible efforts to ban sales of PS3s to certain countries, claiming their ability to be networked computers with a high level of processing power makes them potential tools for missile and nuclear weapons development.  Or better yet handy units to either create or crack encrpytion.

  3. Years ago, somebody build a supercomputer out of PS2’s. Instead of the CPU, they used the graphics chip for number crunching.

    That’s essentially what a cell processor is, a processor normally used for graphics or media. These types of processors don’t work well in today’s computers normally because they can only be optimized for one specific type of task, and start to bog down when running multiple tasks.

    But the cell processor used in the PS3 is a little more creative, which I think is why 3 companies worked on it, because these 3 companies reworked the cell processor to be programmable for different types of tasks. Media, and the other stuff.

    Which eventually is going to lead to cell processors in other devices. With each processor being optimized for the task the device needs to accomplish.

  4. Elwed, the PS2 couldn’t have been on the CoCom list as that was abandoned on March 31, 1994 and wasn’t replaced until 1996 with the Wassenaar Arrangement.

    There are export restrictions on “Supercomputers” that limit or prohibit what countries they can be exported to:

    What is a supercomputer? The definition of a supercomputer is a system that can perform “at least one billion floating-point calculations per second.” (a gigaflop) According to the export guidelines of the United States, a supercomputer shall be exported to any Tier III country (India, Pakistan, all Middle East/ Maghreb, the former Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Central Europe) only after a 10-day pre-export application process. Also, a supercomputer cannot be exported to a Tier IV country (Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, and Syria).

    According to several benchmark tests, the new Apple processor, the G4, is considered a supercomputer. With a tested ability to perform over 3000 MTOPS (Millions of Theoretical Operations per Second), the G4 is considered by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Export Administration (BXA) as computer hardware that must be controlled.

    Intel is also poised to release their new processor, the Itanium. According to the information given on their web site, the average processing power combined with the ability to connect two Itanium processors in parallel, may result in some legal problems when the new processor is introduced into the market. This processor also meets the United States’ current definition of a supercomputer.

    Also, according to Sony, the processor in the new Playstation 2 has the ability to run at about 6.2 gigaflops. [2] In other words, that the new chip will be capable of about 6200 MTOPS. As a result, the new Playstation will fall into the States’ current definition of computer hardware that must be controlled by the BXA.

    Therefore, in order to export this product to any Tier III country, the ultimate user (in these countries) must apply for permission. If the application is successful, the United States keeps these applications on file so they have a record of everyone in a Tier III country that owns one of these ‘dangerous’ machines.

    Some ask: why all the security and read tape for the export of a simple personal computer or gaming console? Well, according to the BXA, the reason for this is so that they can “ensure that they are used for peaceful purposes.” In other words, the United States are afraid that Apple G4 or the Sony Playstation will be used to operate a piece of military machinery or software.

    The reasoning behind this does have its origins in logic. The processing power needed to operate a military installation (or more specifically, to conduct a military strike) would require the use of a supercomputer. However, it should be noted that the actual method in which this information would be processed is different from that of a personal computer or game console. The architecture of the hardware operating a military base if vastly different from that of a Mac or Playstation. So even though, in theory, the processing power is there, common sense would dictate that it cannot be used for the purpose the U.S. is afraid of.—Technology Exports in the Information Age

    The PS3 is estimated to be capable of 2 Teraflops on its own so it definitely falls on the restricted list.

  5. Elwed, the PS2 couldn’t have been on the CoCom list as that was abandoned on March 31, 1994 and wasn’t replaced until 1996 with the Wassenaar Arrangement.

    Fair enough.

  6. I wish they would let me use the PS3 to take on some of the number crunching when I render projects in Sony Vegas. You can already do it with a 2nd PC over your LAN to speed up your rendered effects. (Nice.) If they made a Linux app for the PS3 that did that, then Vegas owners could write off their PS3’s at tax time!

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