Air Force launches supercomputer made with PS3s

Meanwhile, Sony sues everyone else using PS3's Linux for anything at all

The U.S. Air Force has finally completed and put online the graphics supercomputer it built using a total of 1,760 Sony PS3 gaming consoles, firing up the imaginations of millions of console gamers, while Sony simultaneously dashed their hopes.

The Air Force built the Condor PS3 cluster as a processing center for digital photo and video data coming in from cameras mounted on drones, spy satellites and other airborne voyeurs. Graphics-optimized consoles can process that data to help pick out defined targets more quickly and easily than more standard computer hardware, at about one-tenth the cost, according to Air Force announcements.

(Here is aPDF with more detail on the PS3 Condor cluster.)

Condor will be able to keep constant watch over areas as large as 15 square miles at a time, according to quotes attributed to Mike Barnell, director of high-performance computing and the Air Force Research Laboratory's High-Performance Computing group.

The system cost $2 million to build, which is 5 percent to 10 percent the cost of a custom-built system, according to estimates by the Air Force Research Laboratory, which built the system.

The cluster isn't a string of daisy-chained PS3s. A string of 84 dual-processor, six-core boards act as headnodes to coordinate processing for 22 PS3s each. The system runs modified versions of Fedora Linux and Yellow Dog Enterprise Linux, and delivers 500 teraflops of computing power.

What really makes that target-identification possible, though, is the ability to run the PS3s in clusters and run non-Sony software on top of them using embedded Linux functions Sony refers to as OtherOS.

Shortly after the Air Force ordered the 2,100 or so PS3s, Sony announced it would stop building accessible Linux functions into the PS3, and would issue a compulsory update that would lock down Linux in existing units so it couldn't be used.

The idea was to keep customers from jailbreaking the game consoles to use them for other things – like analyzing data from top-secret surveillance missions.

The Air Force managed to get permission to keep using its machines and the "OtherOS" on them.

Sony went to court to try to force others to give up their favorite hacks.

Customers sued, complaining that crippling the Linux functions violated the warranty agreement, amounted to unfair competition and outright fraud.

In February a federal judge deleted all the charges except the one charging that marketing PS3s with Linux functions, then eliminating them constituted fraud.

The plaintiffs are refiling, but as Groklaw points out, the fraud charge against which Sony will be defending itself is almost exactly the one Sony itself is using to sue a hacker who discovered a backdoor into the PS3's system software and used it as a way to run unauthorized software on the box.

The hack was allegedly created by George Hotz( aka geohot) a dongle and modified firmware, plus a private key Sony uses to sign its software.

Hotz posted a description of the suit, his actions and a plea for financial and legal help on this site.

Maybe the Air Force, as the leading PS3 hacker, can offer some help. Now that it has Condor finished it should have a little time and a few bucks to spare to keep its critical systems from end-of-lifing as soon as they go online.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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