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Air Force Builds Supercomputer with Gaming Consoles
Mark Barnell (dates unavailable), Gaurav Khanna (dates unavailable)
“It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. In 2010, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Rome, New York, built a “budget” supercomputer called the Condor Cluster using commercial, off-the-shelf hardware consisting primarily of 1,716 PlayStation 3 (PS3) game consoles. Motivated to save money while advancing his research programs, Mark Barnell, director of AFRL’s high-power computing division, took an unorthodox approach to achieve the number-crunching capacity required for AFRL’s use of radar data to create images of cities.
The PS3’s computer power came from its “cell” processor, which relied upon numerous specialized cores. Barnell’s team connected the PS3s along with 168 graphical processing units and 84 coordinating servers in a parallel array to realize a capability that could perform 500 trillion floating-point calculations per second. Put another way, the Condor was 50,000 times faster than an average laptop. At the time, the Condor Cluster was considered the 35th- or 36th-fastest computer in the world and cost just $2 million—almost 30 times cheaper than a proper supercomputer, which would typically set an organization back $50 million to $80 million.
The idea to build a do-it-yourself supercomputer using linked PS3s did not originate inside the Air Force, however. In 2007, an engineer at North Carolina State University created a scientific research cluster with eight connected PS3s that cost $5,000. That same year, University of Massachusetts physicist Dr. Gaurav Khanna networked 16 PS3s to model black-hole collisions. Named the Gravity Grid, this was the cluster that caught the attention of the Air Force team. Dr. Khanna would go on to publish a paper in the journal Parallel and Distributed Computing and Systems showing how the PS3 processor sped up scientific calculations over traditional processors by a factor of 10.
The high price tag of “proper” supercomputers includes lots of other hardware, of course, such as power conditioners and cooling. Dr. Khanna’s team found a cheap, off-the-shelf way of keeping their PS3s cool: they put them in a refrigerated shipping container designed to transport milk.”
Photograph of the supercomputer built by the Air Force Research Lab from PlayStation 3 game consoles.