New US Military Computer Made From 2,000 PlayStation Consoles

The United States Air Force has transformed almost 2,000 Japanese Sony PlayStation consoles into a powerful supercomputer suitable for military tasks.

The Department of Defense used more than 1,000 PlayStation 3 consoles to create a supercomputer. Photo: Department of Defense

Almost 2,000 Sony PlayStation game consoles have been networked by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to create an affordable supercomputer that is being used to develop techniques to process and analyze huge quantities of imagery from wide-area surveillance systems.

Key to the attraction of using PlayStation video game consoles – more commonly found in teenagers’ bedrooms than military laboratories – is the presence of the Cell BE chip, innovative technology which can greatly accelerate multimedia applications.

The new supercomputer, which has been named The Condor Cluster created by AFRL’s Information Division at Rome AFB, N.Y., comprises 1,760 PlayStation 3 consoles and 168 high-performance graphics processors connected by a high-bandwidth network. The cluster has a peak performance of 500 teraflops, which is 50,000 times faster than the average consumer laptop.

“AFRL Rome’s ribbon cutting will be a significant event in the history of supercomputing,” said Mark Barnell, director of AFRL’s High Power Computing. “Condor is a 500 TFLOPS supercomputer.”

“FLOPS” refers to FLoating point OPerations per Second, essentially “instructions per second. One teraflop or TFLOP is one trillion floating point operations per second, the common measure for measuring supercomputing speed.

“Such capability exceeds any other interactive supercomputer currently used by the Department of Defense,” Mr. Barnell noted. A total of 84 dual, six core server processors function as headnodes, each coordinating the operation of 22 PS3’s, to drive the Condor.

Built for about $2 million, the Condor is the 34th most powerful supercomputer in the world, but it is 15 times more cost-effective than equivalent systems, says Mark Barnell. The Condor also consumes a 10th the power of comparable machines, making it the sixth “greenest” supercomputer in the world, he says.

The Condor is the result of an AFRL initiative to exploit inexpensive commercial computing technology, and particularly the powerful Cell BE chip developed jointly by IBM, Sony and Toshiba and used in the PlayStation.

“This is extremely fast at moving information, very power-efficient and available at commodity pricing in the PlayStation box,” Barnell says.

The cluster also uses powerful general-purpose graphics processors from Nvidia and ATI that are “extremely cost-efficient and low-power,” he says. Two of these are used in each of 84 server nodes, each of which coordinates the operation of 22 PlayStations to deliver the Condor’s performance.

Because of limitations on memory and network bandwidth, Barnell says AFRL has had to select applications that work well on the Condor’s PlayStation-based architecture. These include the front-end processing of video and radar imagery from persistent wide-area surveillance platforms.

This requires the processing of between 350 million and 3 billion pixels a second, and demands 200-300 teraflops sustained throughput, he says.

The second application, called computational intelligence, or neuromorphic processing, is intended to help manage the vast quantities of surveillance data being collected and involves the back-end processing of imagery to remove unwanted information and pick out areas of interest to forward to intelligence analysts.

A third application to be tested involves space situational awareness and the processing of large amounts of surveillance data in seconds versus hours, Barnell says.

The Condor also will be used to support experiments in the field as the cluster, comprising ranks of PlayStation consoles on bakery racks, is mobile, unlike a conventional supercomputer.

This will allow groups of processors to be placed on a smaller chassis and mounted in an aircraft to support experiments requiring high-performance computing, he says. [Air Force Research Laboratory via The Telegraph (UK) and Cleveland]

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