Air Force builds supercomputer out of PlayStations

Thursday - 1/13/2011, 3:58pm EST

Mark Barnell, High Performance Computing Director, Air Force Lab

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Give 1,716 PlayStations to a bunch of engineers and what do you get?

At the Air Force Lab in Rome, New York, you get a supercomputer.

The Sony PlayStation 3 has a unique processor that was "very intriguing" to the engineers, said Mark Barnell, high performance computing director at the Lab, in an interview with the DorobekINSIDER.

"We said, Hey, what if we had a whole bunch of PlayStations - Could we program them?" Barnell said.

The choice of a video game console may seem unusual, but from a price and performance standpoint it made sense to the Air Force Lab engineers. Similar computer architecture costs $7,000 to $10,000. The PlayStation costs a few hundred bucks, Barnell said.

The supercomputer - Condor Cluster - cost $2 million to build. The cheapest comparable supercomputers cost between $50 and $80 million.

Condor Cluster is capable of high-resolution signal image processing, working with millions and even billions of pixels, Barnell said.

"That kind of resolution is the equivalent of 150 high-definition televisions all at once," he said.

The supercomputer is being used in something called neuromorphic computing. Programmers write algorithms to "teach" the computer how to read symbols, letters, words and sentences. By programming the computer to read, it can be taught to fill in gaps on its own, according to the Air Force website.

Barnell said the Condor Cluster is not a general prupose supercomputer and does not replace other supercomputers, but it does work well with particular applications.

"We played to the strengths of what a Sony PlayStation could offer us and took advantage of it," he said.

To optimize performance, the engineers deactivated features they did not need, such as the Bluray function. The consoles, connected by six miles of cables, "look just like what you think of if you put them on a baker's rack," Barnell said.

The advances engineers have made with the Condor Cluster will help with the next computer architecture, "whatever that may be," Barnell said.

Photo courtesy of Defense Department.