Build an 8 PS3 supercomputer

Summary:Less than a 10th the cost per GFlop of the $2500 supercomputerTake 8 PS 3 consoles, Yellow Dog Linux, a Gigabit Ethernet switch and your favorite protein folding or gravitational wave modeling codes and you're doing real science. On a Playstation!

Less than a 10th the cost per GFlop of the $2500 supercomputer Take 8 PS 3 consoles, Yellow Dog Linux, a Gigabit Ethernet switch and your favorite protein folding or gravitational wave modeling codes and you're doing real science. On a Playstation!

Try playing Ratchet & Clank on a Cray Most scientific computing is done on cluster computers. Blue Gene/L, the world's fastest supercomputer, uses 130,000 processors. Plus a lot of money, power and cooling.

At about $4 per billion of floating point operations (GFlops) the PS3 is the cheapest supercomputer building block available today.

Look under the hood The PS3's Cell Broadband Engine processor, or Cell, is a heterogenous multiprocessor. Instead of identical cores - like the Intel and AMD multi-core processors - the Cell consists of a 64bit PowerPC core and 8 “synergistic co-processor elements” (SPEs).

Each SPE has 256 KB local store, a memory controller and a “synergistic processing unit” (SPU) with a Single Instruction, Multiple Data processing unit and 128 registers of 128 bits each. They're connected by a bus with an internal bandwidth of more than 300 GB/s that transfers data between the SPEs.

The bottom line: you can go to Toys-R-Us and toss 200 GFlops into your shopping cart.

Sony, your friendly supercomputer vendor Sony generously donated 8 PS3 consoles to Professor Gaurav Khanna of the University of Massachusetts for his research on black holes and quantum cosmology.

This is a graphic of one black hole spiraling into another. It is representative of the problems Prof. Khanna is analyzing.

Doing a run on a conventional supercomputer cost him about $5,000 in grant money. For less than that he could have built the PS3 cluster and run anything he wanted. But Sony saved him even that trouble by donating the equipment.

This is serious stuff, right? So it has to be rack mounted. But the PS3 is so tiny:

[photo courtesy of Prof. Khanna]

Do real work on a Playstation cluster Go to Terrasoft to get PowerPC Linux that runs on the PS3's . Go to IBM for version 3.0 of the developers kit.

Pick up a SCOP3, A Rough Guide to Scientific Computing On the PlayStation 3 by a team from the University of Tennessee that includes Jack Dongarra, longtime publisher of the Top 500 supercomputer list.

Get the MIT lecture notes from the Cell programming course.

Interested in ray tracing? Check out Ray Tracing on the Cell Processor (pdf) by Carsten Benthin, Ingo Wald, Michael Scherbaum andHeiko Friedrich. Note: if you don't already understand the math behind ray tracing you'll be lost in this highly technical paper.

Protein folding Your standalone PS3 can be part of a supercomputer project even if you don't build it yourself. Stanford's Folding@home protein-folding research can use your PS3's cycles to help understand the causes of Alzheimer's and many other diseases. Help save the *real* world.

The Storage Bits take A single Cell processor is roughly equivalent to 25 nodes on Blue Gene/L. While there are a number of architectural limitations to the Cell and the PS3 that limit its general applicability, it enables researchers to apply an incredible number of cycles to certain classes of problem. And Sony, IBM and Toshiba are hard at work on the next generation of the Cell.

On StorageMojo I've often addressed the consumerization of IT. The PS3 represents the consumerization of supercomputing. That will benefit us all.

Comments welcome, of course.

Update: One commenter wrote in to disparage the PS3 as a supercomputer, saying he'd had an 8 node cluster and found it no more than a toy. I asked Professor Khanna about it and he said:

I had done my homework before I built the cluster; the problems of memory and network latency he mentions were not an issue for me. So, its actually working really well for me. I am doing research-grade simulations on the cluster.

BTW, if he doesn't need his PS3s anymore .. maybe he can consider donating them to us here ;-)

Topics: Processors, Hardware, Mobility


Harris has been working with computers for over 35 years and selling and marketing data storage for over 30 in companies large and small. He introduced a couple of multi-billion dollar storage products (DLT, the first Fibre Channel array) to market, as well as a many smaller ones. Earlier he spent 10 years marketing servers and networks.... Full Bio

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