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Air Force Supercomputer Made From PS3's 212

Posted by samzenpus
from the sum-of-its-parts dept.
The Air Force's Research Lab in Rome, NY. has one of the cheapest supercomputers ever made, and best of all over 3,000 of your friends can play Tekken on it. The computer is made from 1,716 PlayStation 3s linked together, and is used to process images from spy planes. From the article: "The Air Force calls the souped-up PlayStations the Condor Supercomputer and says it is among the 40 fastest computers in the world. The Condor went online late last year, and it will likely change the way the Air Force and the Air National Guard watch things on the ground." We covered this story back in December when the Condor first went online.
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Air Force Supercomputer Made From PS3's

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  • old news is old (Score:5, Informative)

    by drkamil (1242294) on Wednesday March 23, 2011 @10:27PM (#35594652) Journal
    we already know this, and we already discussed it AGAIN when sony deactivated the otheros option...
    • by Culture20 (968837)
      so maybe your friends cant play tekken on it now.
    • That's ok. When the operational tests are fully completed 10 years from now, the Air Force will order 25 such supercomputers to power their IT infrastructure for the next 50 years after that...
  • So what's new? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    We covered this story back in December when the Condor first went online.

    And ... what's changed?

    • by eonlabs (921625)

      The anniversary of the removal of the install other os option is this week. It's also been a little over a year since I've purchased anything from sony. Other than that, not much.

  • Upgrades. (Score:5, Funny)

    by Master Moose (1243274) on Wednesday March 23, 2011 @10:29PM (#35594666) Homepage

    Watch out for that next firmware update!

    • by rekoil (168689)

      Came here to say exactly that. Done in one :)

    • by dicobalt (1536225)
      I would worry more about Sony lawyers. They have got to be salivating at the Air Force's bankroll and trying to come up with a reason to sue.
      • Re:Upgrades. (Score:5, Informative)

        by sribe (304414) on Wednesday March 23, 2011 @11:12PM (#35594924)

        I would worry more about Sony lawyers. They have got to be salivating at the Air Force's bankroll and trying to come up with a reason to sue.

        I don't think you're kidding, but OMG, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when I read that. Seriously, unless they're delusional psychopaths[1], they're not salivating, they're shitting their pants at the thought of being sued by the Air Force. You don't sell something to the US government with certain advertised capabilities, then take away those capabilities, then sue the US government for using them. Instead, you get sued by the US government until you beg for mercy.

        [1] This is a possibility.

        • Re:Upgrades. (Score:4, Insightful)

          by inflex (123318) on Wednesday March 23, 2011 @11:25PM (#35594974) Homepage Journal

          No, I think salivating is right - because it'll mean a very long, protracted law suit likely - which means a lot of billable hours and at a higher rate because after all, they're not just dealing with anyone, they're handling the US Govt (realistic or not). Win or lose, it doesn't matter.

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward
            I have to agree with GP here. I can't imagine very many things less pleasant for a lawyer than standing up and explaining to the jury that the feature was disabled because of the evil haxxorz abusing it....

            And then having an air force general take the stand (in uniform) to testify as to how that very same feature is being used to defeat al-qaeda by the brave men and women of the US armed forces.....

            • by BKX (5066)

              This. Particularly sentence 2. Also, the Air Force, being a part of the US Government can exempt itself from lawsuits at will.

          • by Byzantine (85549)

            I doubt if billable hours are a concern. Sony needs lawyers so often, they probably have them on staff—i.e., on salary. There are a ton of lawyers who are willing to make less money if it also means having an 8–5, 5-days-a-week, job instead of a 90-hour workweek.

        • ... You don't sell something to the US government with certain advertised capabilities, then take away those capabilities, then sue the US government for using them ...

          The Air Force is probably not connecting to the internet and getting firmware updates from Sony.

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            Yeah but they were sold under the pretense that they could repair and expand, but every current and future PS3 cannot have its firmware downgraded, and doesnt have access to OtherOS (legally at least) So once they run out of spares, theyre boned
          • by stiggle (649614)

            They have given access to numerous other agencies and universities (Cornell, Dartmouth College, Florida, Maryland, Tennesse) to the system - whose access will be over the internet.

        • by F34nor (321515)

          Lol. Sony is so fucking stupid they actually sued their own god damn selves. With intellectual capacity like that pissing off the USAF is the last of their worries.

        • I would worry more about Sony lawyers. They have got to be salivating at the Air Force's bankroll and trying to come up with a reason to sue.

          I don't think you're kidding, but OMG, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when I read that. Seriously, unless they're delusional psychopaths[1], they're not salivating, they're shitting their pants at the thought of being sued by the Air Force. You don't sell something to the US government with certain advertised capabilities, then take away those capabilities, then sue the US government for using them. Instead, you get sued by the US government until you beg for mercy.

          [1] This is a possibility.

          No. You simply don't upgrade them to take away the capability.

          If one broke I doubt they even bother to send it back. Just set it aside for parts. The time and effort to process a return is probably moor ethan it's worth.

          • by Bert64 (520050)

            And what if they want to replace a broken node? No new units being sold today have OtherOS capability, so their cluster would gradually shrink in size until it became useless.

      • Re:Upgrades. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Bacon Bits (926911) on Wednesday March 23, 2011 @11:23PM (#35594962)

        Yes, that's the wise thing to do. Pick on the customer who not only has more lawyers, who not only has special laws which apply to their behavior as a defense organization, who not only has more money than Sony, but who also has more friends in Congress.

        If you're the 9th grade bully you don't go picking on the 12th grade wrestling star who's the son of the Principal. Pick battles you can win.

        The wise thing to do is to produce a new SKU of the PS3 designed for distributed computing and development which allows the Other OS option and has a special SDK but, for example, can't join PSN (and perhaps cannot even play PS3 games) or which uses a special PSN for this purpose. Then you no have a way to sell these devices to your customers and you can increase the price per unit because you can no longer expect to recoup your losses on game software purchases. Indeed, all you should need to do is put in an option that lets you enable a distributed computing mode. Perhaps entering a software key which the bootstrap firmware will recognize. Then it's just a matter of selling a site license software key. You don't even need a truly different SKU.

        "But people will hack it!" Like they already have? This way you get paid for legitimate people to use your product as they wish. You do what you can to prevent loss from hacking and the like, but it's not a valid excuse for not selling what people are demanding from you. The secret of capitalism is to give people what they want at a price they will pay, not to punish them for doing something you didn't expect.

        • Surely IBM sells "computers" based on the Cell processor? I assume all this demand is because it was available as cheap commodity hardware more than anything that gears a PS3 to being a speciality clustered supercomputer.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward

            bladecenter qs22 starts at $9995 for two processor 3.2 ghz.

            Granted nobody is supposed to pay MSRP but even that price is order of magnitude and a multiple over PS3 retail

        • by westlake (615356)
          The PS3 cluster took 1,500 =2,000 loss-leader consoles + spares out of retail distribution channels.

          With no return to Sony from video game and Blu-Ray or on-line services. While cannibalizing sales of Sonu's own commercial HPC.product.

          What the geek is asking for is a hardware subsidy from Sony's consumer products division - to be paid, ultimately, by PS3 gamers.

          It is not going to happen.

          The OtherOS made its exit from the PS2 with the introduction of the PS2 Slim. No one built a HPC cluster from the PS3 b

          • So, people used Sony's poor business model to their advantage, and you're mad at them? Don't hate the player, hate the game.
          • No one built a HPC cluster from the PS3 believed the game was going to go the whole nine innings.

            Bullshit.

            It's a cluster of 1,700 PS3s which means 1,700 consumer grade hard drives. Let's assume they've thought of this and changed to, say, Western Digital Caviar Blacks (so-called enterprise grade). Those have a 1.2 million hours MTBF. Normal consumer grade hard drives are closer to 750,000 hours.

            1,200,000 hours MTBF / 24 hours per day = 50,000 mean drive days between failures
            50,000 mean drive days betwee

        • Sony sells those, they cost a LOT more than a PS3 though, and I don't know if they'll sell them to just any joe schmoe who wants to run LInux on one. In fact, I'm not for certain they can run YDL. They have more RAM and a second hard drive too!

          http://arstechnica.com/gaming/news/2009/03/sony-announces-lower-cost-ps3-dev-tools.ars [arstechnica.com]
          http://www.scei.co.jp/corporate/release/090324e.html [scei.co.jp]

        • by WarlockD (623872)

          They probably can't. IBM blade's cost almost 5k per cpu. I doubt that whatever deal they got with IBM allows them to get these chips allows that. If anything, I suspect its this reason they pulled the linux option and blamed it on the hackers as a smokescreen.

        • The problem with your little scheme is this bit:

          "and you can increase the price per unit because you can no longer expect to recoup your losses on game software purchases."

          And that's where you hit a problem. Selling something to the government at a higher rate than what you sell it at to the general public, or, really anyone else, is itself illegal, and will get your company into a mess of trouble. You're right that they could argue that it's not the same, bla bla bla, but try getting a jury to agree that

      • Re:Upgrades. (Score:4, Interesting)

        by jesseck (942036) on Thursday March 24, 2011 @12:42AM (#35595356)
        So, to counter this, the Air Force needs to convince DHS and FBI that clusters of PS3s are more efficient at processing biometric databases. That would help ensure that, no matter what Sony does to keep OtherOS and Jailbreak out of the PS3, doing so would be a hindrance to our national security.
      • Sony Lawyers vs. United States Air Force

        Round I: FIGHT!

        Sony Lawyers use: File Lawsuit

        Lawsuit has no effect.

        United States Air Force uses: A10 Thunderbolt with GAU-8

        It is SUPER effective!

        United States Air Force wins!

    • by c1ay (703047)

      Just wait until some of the machines fail and need to be replaced and the Air Force finds out they can't get what they bought anymore. Sony might want to preemptively work out an arrangement to keep from getting sued.

      • by mwvdlee (775178)

        Everybody's claiming the Air Force could Sue Sony over the OtherOS feature. But (1) are the Air Force even using the feature or do they have the machines hacked at a lower level? Perhaps Sony even provided them with custom firmware? (2) assuming the Air Force used the OtherOS feature, do they have any more legal rights than the rest of us? Apparently, Sony has stated in their EULA's that it could remove features.

  • by _0xd0ad (1974778) on Wednesday March 23, 2011 @10:32PM (#35594690) Journal

    The Air Force is also using the Condor to process ground-based radar images of space objects, again with extraordinary clarity. Barnell shows images of a space shuttle orbiting Earth at 5 miles a second. Without Condor processing, the shuttle image is a blurry black triangle. With Condor processing, it is sharp and distinct. It’s clear that its payload doors are open.

    Zoom! Enhance!

    • by mindwhip (894744)

      Now zoom in on the reflection on his sunglasses and flip the image.
      Now show me the reflection on that cars fender and enhance it.
      Now we can see what was around the corner...

  • War Games (Score:5, Funny)

    by xs650 (741277) on Wednesday March 23, 2011 @10:33PM (#35594706)
    Gives new meaning to the term "War Gaming"
  • Halp (Score:4, Funny)

    by atari2600a (1892574) on Wednesday March 23, 2011 @10:35PM (#35594714)
    I accidentally other os. Is this dangerous?
  • Can you imagine what it would be like if it was made instead of 1716 XBOX 360's?

    They would be replacing red-ringed XBOXes more often than scientists had to replace vacuum tubes on ENIAC. [wikipedia.org]

  • Would be cooler to have a PS3 game where you get to control 1,716 USAF planes.
  • Gaming consoles to do graphics processing, makes sense. They must have quite some specialised graphics related horse power, considering their planned output.
    • Gaming consoles to do graphics processing, makes sense. They must have quite some specialised graphics related horse power, considering their planned output.

      Not necessarily. The specialized hardware is designed to take a mathematical model of a world and to render that model into an image. Image processing, or more accurately computer vision - the part of image processing and artificial intelligence that is more relevant here, goes in the opposite direction. Computer vision takes an image and tries to generate mathematical models that describe the objects in the scene. For example recognizing if an object is a rock or a tank or an ambulance.

      So I suspect the

      • by wvmarle (1070040)

        IIRC from previous discussions regarding this platform, is that the PS3 is particularly well suited for doing fourier transforms and related analyses - graphics cards were also very capable in filtering signals in the seti@home project. Sounds somewhat similar to me. Edge detection, for example. Filtering signals from the noise where the noise is almost as bad as the signal.

        From those discussions I also recall that the PS3 is not considered strong in general purpose number crunching work; your run-of-the-m

        • From those discussions I also recall that the PS3 is not considered strong in general purpose number crunching work; your run-of-the-mill Intel is doing much better across the board. It's these specific tasks where [specialized] units like the PS3 can shine. Them being marketed as gaming consoles of course helps in keeping volume up and cost down, making them almost disposable and at least easily replaceable in case of hardware failure.

          (emphasis mine) -- There is an issue with this statement. You assume that newly purchased units can actually be used beyond the capacity to run Sony signed code.

          Let's not forget that the PS3 should only be used for gaming according to their manufacturer. As I recall, Sony removed the "other-os" option and are suing those that wish to re-enable that option. Thus, the units that the USAF are using are not disposable because they can not be easily replaced in case of hardware failure...

          ...Unless:

          • A su
        • I think both of you are missing the fact that it's the Cell processor and not necessarily the graphics card which is the draw here. One master core; lots of slave cores. Surely a joy to program highly-parallel applications on.

          Of course, the graphics card can be utilized with OpenCL (but I rather suspect that is mere icing on the cake).
  • They mention what improvement it can do but I wasn't able to find any examples. Anyone at least have that space shuttle example they mentioned?

  • How do they deal with nodes failing? Did they buy a bunch of spares? If not, they might be in trouble because you can't buy the OtherOS PS3's anymore.

    • by b4dc0d3r (1268512)

      No worries, it's the air force. They will just set up a no fly zone around Sony, and the problem will solve itself.

    • by hedwards (940851)

      I'm pretty sure what they do is just crack them. At this point I'm pretty sure they've got some way of putting older firmware on the devices, and Sony can't do anything about it. The Federal government tends to quash law suits about this sort of thing before they get anywhere.

  • by ae1294 (1547521)

    Hard resets must be a bitch...

  • Shall we play a game?
  • by EricX2 (670266)

    It was 1760 back in December, does that mean 44 have died since then? Are they sure they aren't using Xbox 360s?

  • Because if they do, the latest firmware gets automatically installed.
  • by mcrbids (148650) on Wednesday March 23, 2011 @11:29PM (#35595000) Journal

    There's an attitude that's commonplace among with regards to stuff that you are supposed to do a particular thing with it. When you buy a can of Pringles, you are supposed to throw away the can! You buy a microwave for cooking, and the PS3 is for video games, and crayons are for kids to draw with, etc.

    It's considered anachronistic to use crayons as an electric insulator, or PS3 for calculating aerodynamics, or use a microwave for generating and studying R/F interference patterns. And making long-range communications equipment from a Pringles can is.... just odd.

    Yet none of these alternative uses would be particularly surprising to the engineering type, who think nothing of making a filter out of pantie-hose and a plastic butter container, because our type not only thinks outside the box, we decide what would be the best way to slice up the box in order to satisfy the problem at hand.

    Good show Air Force!

    • What's scary is that people are starting to believe that a manufacturer is perfectly within their rights to limit what you can and cannot do with your stuff after you've bought it from them.

      I walked into a conversation about PS3 jail-breaking and asked how a hammer manufacturer can limit my use of the hammer I purchased. Should I have to purchase a framing hammer, a roofing hammer, a birdhouse hammer, etc.? I completely gave up on the idea of ever having a serious conversation with those coworkers when the

  • To find out why they are doing this try contacting a vendor that sells Cell based servers. It's as if they are pricing them deliberately so that nobody will buy them. When I tried I could have purchased eight fairly equivalent Intel based systems for the price of one Cell based machine. Meanwhile a playstation with the same processor as a low end Cell server is under ten percent of the price. It's almost as if it a a vector of a price inflate and bribe scam - maybe it is considering how hard the sales g
    • by dhammabum (190105)

      No, I think this is just IBM's stupidity? narrow mindedless? I can't work them out. Ride the monopoly as hard as possible but of course this isn't quite a monopoly. Two years ago we bought a new IBM SAN from the "broker market" for just over 1/2 the "best" price from IBM. Of course IBM *still* made profit on the deal. Their POWER servers are so over priced, for the same money (broker market mind you) we can buy 3 beefy Intel servers with quite adequate performance, so they are seriously losing a lot of mark

  • The next step (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Required Snark (1702878) on Thursday March 24, 2011 @12:51AM (#35595388)

    Even though the Slashdot Pundits dismiss this as useless, obviously the user community it supports thinks it is a big success. The claim is that Condor is in the to 40 supercomputers and it costs 10 times less then getting the same results using other hardware. Not too shabby.

    It's likely that one of the reasons that this is so useful is the the SPE/Cell processors are good at the kind of image processing that the USAF is interested in. They are doing a lot of work in the Fourier domain, which is common for radar processing, so the Cell streaming 64 bit floating point architecture is well suited to the task.

    From the article:

    As impressive as the Condor is, it won’t be for long. Barnell envisions integrating smartphone processors into high-performance computing, putting the power of a Condor into a small surveillance drone the size of your fist, something weighing less than a pound and using the energy of a standard light bulb.

    This translates to "We're going to use ARM processors as soon as possible".

    These researchers see the value in leveraging commercial technology for cost effective high performance computing. If you want good performance per watt driven by a big commercial market the ARM is the way to go. There are GPUs that work with the ARM architecture, as well as ARM vector processing units. I would guess that they plan to use the upcoming generation of 64 bit ARM processors as soon as they are available. They might even start with current generation 32 bit dual CPU 2GHz hardware.

    Just because the ARM is not as cool as CUDA doesn't make it useless. IBM has announce that it will not do a next gen PS3/Cell processor, so the USAF funding that effort by itself would be costly and have long lead times. ARM CPUs are only going to get cheaper, faster and be very power efficient. It's the obvious next step.

    • so the Cell streaming 64 bit floating point architecture is well suited to the task.

      When I was doing Cell programming for scientific computing, the Cell's 64-bit double-precision performance actually blew chunks. The Cell found in PS3's, unless they've updated it in the past few years, is first and foremost a videogame processor.

      If the Airforce could start from scratch today, I wonder if they'd get better performance for their money using GPU cards rather than PS3's.

    • Just because the ARM is not as cool as CUDA doesn't make it useless.

      Just for notice : the Tegra platform is an ARM cpu core with an Nvidia GPU unit.
      Also Imagination Technologie (maker of the PowerVR GPU often coupled to ARM CPU's like on Texas Instrument's OMAP chip) is among the companies collaborating on OpenCL standard.
      Qualcom's GPU is a core previously developped by ATI/AMD.
      (And AMD's Fusion technologie could be scaled down to lower power requirement in the future).

      As smartphone, tablets and such are going to need more parallel processing in the future (for video proces

    • The reason it was cost effective is because, like all console manufacturers, Sony subsidizes the hardware with the expectation of recouping the cost via game developer license fees.

  • beat it at tic tac toe.

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