PlayStation Pull-Back Hurts Inexpensive Supercomputing

Sure, the PS3 is great for games... and 2,000-node clusters.

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Yesterday, April 1st, brought the inevitable round of high-tech hijinks, as individuals and companies jockeyed to see who could be funnier. My personal favorite was Google renaming itself to Topeka, a move sure to consternate anyone not in the know and amuse those who were.

One tech company, however, released a software update that was decidedly unfunny.

In a March 28 announcement on the PlayStation blog, Sony revealed that a new firmware patch (v. 3.21) for the PlayStation 3 would disable the “Install Other OS” feature on existing PS3 devices.

In other words, no Linux on any PS3s.

This follows up on an announcement in August 2009 that new PS3 Slim devices would no longer support the same feature, though existing PS3 machines would still have it. No more, it seems.

According to the blog’s author, Patrick Seybold, Sr. Director, Corporate Communications & Social Media, “This feature enabled users to install an operating system, but due to security concerns, Sony Computer Entertainment will remove the functionality through the 3.21 system software update.”

Security concerns seems a bit odd, because if they were so prevalent, why implement the feature in the first place, only to take it away?

Frankly, this was a selfish move on Sony’s part, and a big hit to low-cost supercomputing.

It's easy to assume that the only users affected by Sony's decision are the ever-present tinkerers who try (and typically succeed) to install Linux on every new device that comes out. Hence, Linux on iPhone. It's a challenge that seems to range from ardent hobby to mild obsession.

In the case of the PS3, however, the benefits of Linux on the CellBE-processor device were immediate. In 2007, the researchers at NorthCarolina State University clustered eight PS3 machines that ran Fedora Core 5 Linux (ppc64). That same year a University of Massachusetts team found that putting together an eight-node PS3 cluster together (for a cost of about US$4000) would perform with the same processing power as a 200-processor supercomputer.

This news has not sat well with Sony customers. Nearly 5,000 comments have been made on the announcement, and the majority reflects dissatisfaction at best. Little wonder, since most people are not used to features being taken away after they buy something.

Curiously, when Sony explained the decision about the PS3 slim last summer on the PlayStation 2 developer forum, security was not mentioned as a factor:

"The reasons are simple: The PS3 Slim is a major cost reduction involving many changes to hardware components in the PS3 design. In order to offer the OtherOS install, SCE would need to continue to maintain the OtherOS hypervisor drivers for any significant hardware changes--this costs SCE. One of our key objectives with the new model is to pass on cost savings to the consumer with a lower retail price. Unfortunately in this case the cost of OtherOS install did not fit with the wider objective to offer a lower cost PS3."

Huh. No mention of security there. I tried to reach Seybold for clarification, but he is out of the office from 3/27 to 4/6. Good timing, that. (To be fair, I will similarly be out of the office from 4/3 to 4/11, though I am not making any pre-timed announcements.)

The reality probably is that Sony loses money on every PS3 it sells, counting on game sales to make up for the loss in revenue. Academic institutions using PS3s for clusters aren't likely to buy games or engage in online commerce.

That’s why, when you hear that the US military was planning to buy 2,200 PS3 consoles to upgrade an existing PS3-based supercomputing cluster, Sony doesn’t jump for joy. I suspect it was news like this, plus other sales for clustering, that prompted Sony to turn off the “Other OS” feature for existing PS3s.

Of course, users don’t have to install the new firmware patch. But Sony has made it just a tad difficult for the average consumer who wants to have Linux and play PS3 games on their consoles to do so: failure to update to 3.21 will prevent just a few minor features:

  • “Ability to sign in to PlayStation Network and use network features that require signing in to PlayStation Network, such as online features of PS3 games and chat
  • “Playback of PS3 software titles or Blu-ray Disc videos that require PS3 system software version 3.21 or later
  • “Playback of copyright-protected videos that are stored on a media server (when DTCP-IP is enabled under Settings)
  • “Use of new features and improvements that are available on PS3 system software 3.21 or later”

Of course, anyone who’s running a PS3 cluster solely for that purpose now will not be affected—existing Linux systems will happily churn away. But, with the inability expand cluster hardware, it’s a good bet that the PS3 as a supercomputing platform has been effectively killed.

Just as Sony wanted.

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