Air Force launches supercomputer made of 2016 PS3s

Graphics processors give cluster enormous image-analysis capabilities

If someone in your life is hoping for a Microsoft Kinect, you might want to mention that the in thing for real war-gaming is Sony's PS3.

On Dec. 1 Air Force brass took what remained of the covers off a giant, graphics-focused supercomputer built on 1,760 Sony Playstation 3 cell processors and 168 more general-purpose GPUs.

The project has been underway and in the news for more than a year, once the Air Force realized the publicity value of a legitimately high-performing military system built on video-game technology.

The "Condor Cluster," was originally intended as a research project, and then as a high-performing graphics cluster able to run resource-intensive pattern-matching software designed to pick human or vehicle targets out of masses of radar and visual surveillance data and to conduct research into artificial intelligence.

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 Lab estimates the pattern-recognition software would allow the cluster to monitor areas of 25 square kilometers at once in real time, according to Airman Magazine.

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.

Technical problems weren't the only ones in development. After the Air Force bought the PS3s, partly because they could run OSes other than the PS3's native one, Sony decided to turn off that function, leaving the Air Force to make do with the machines it already had and hope not too many of them broke.

Systems that had to be shipped to Sony to be repaired came back with updated firmware and an inability to run other operating systems.

Kind of an idiotic decision on Sony's part, considering the level of publicity and proof of concept at a time Sony is losing ground to Microsoft in the gaming market. Maybe it just doesn't see a market for too many 500 TFLOP supercomputers?

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

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