In an earlier notice here, it was noted that the U.S. Immigration and Customs department was using Sony PlayStation PS3s for password cracking and other security duties. Now an Ars Technica article informs that the military has decided that obtaining a few more of the powerful little machines would be a really good idea in a bad economy –
Consumers aren’t the only ones enjoying the PlayStation 3’s recent price drop. The US military has announced plans to buy 2,200 more of the game consoles, so that they can massively beef up the processing power of an existing, PS3-based supercomputer. A “Justification Review Document,” which has oddly been deleted from Google since I found it but is still available at this cache link, explains that, “the new PS3s will be placed in a cluster environment with an existing cluster of 336 PS3s by connecting each of the units’ one gigabit Ethernet port to a common 24 port gigabit hub.”
The doc goes on to describe how the machine will run Linux, and it specifies that “commercial as well as in-house developed software code specific to these cell processor architectures will be studied. The objective of the architectural studies is to determine the best fit for implementation of various applications. An example would be determining additional software and hardware requirements for Advanced Computing Architectures (ACA) and High Performance Embedded Computing (HPEC) applications.”
A later section of the document extols the virtues of Cell for delivering the most supercomputing GFLOPS for the lowest price. It’s hard to argue with a tenfold price/performance advantage vs. IBM’s Cell products:
With respect to cell processors, a single 1U server configured with two 3.2GHz cell processors can cost up to $8K while two Sony PS3s cost approximately $600. Though a single 3.2 GHz cell processor can deliver over 200 GFLOPS, whereas the Sony PS3 configuration delivers approximately 150 GFLOPS, the approximately tenfold cost difference per GFLOP makes the Sony PS3 the only viable technology for HPC applications.
Calling the PS3 “the only viable technology for HPC applications” is wildly overstating it, but we get the picture.
The reason that the PS3 is a more cost-effective way to buy Cell-powered GFLOPS than, say, the Cell blades that IBM actually makes specifically for supercomputing applications, is that the consoles come with a big, fat subsidy from Sony.
Sony sells the PlayStation 3 at a loss so that it can recoup the money on game sales, PlayStation Network digital sales, and Sony-supplied elements of the “value chain” like HD TVs, memory sticks, and so on. But the military isn’t buying games or TVs—they’re just taking their subsidy from Sony and running with it.
As long as console makers are willing to subsidize the purchase of massive amounts of parallel floating-point power in the name of up-selling, entities both domestic and foreign militaries will buy these machines and use them to God-knows-what ends. In a way, there’s a twisted symmetry to the idea that one generation of consoles may be used to develop some actual weapons that the next console generation simulates for ordinary players.
This certainly would seem to go against the idea that Sony is ending the run of the PS3 , or at least the Cell processor. Perhaps a request from our Uncle Sam will keep them available a while longer than Sony had originally planned.
It will certainly assure the PS3 a solid place in computing history, one way or the other.