WHAT DO YOU GET WHEN YOU PUT 70 PLAYSTATIONS TOGETHER?
A cheap supercomputer
NEW YORK – In perhaps the clearest evidence yet of the computing power of
sophisticated but inexpensive video-game consoles, the
National Centre for
Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign has assembled a supercomputer from an army of Sony PlayStation
The resulting system, with components purchased at retail prices, cost a little
more than US$50,000 (S$86,500) only.
The centre’s researchers believe the system may be capable of half a trillion
operations a second, well within the definition of supercomputer, although it
may not rank among the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the project, which uses the open source
Linux operating system, is that the only hardware engineering involved was
placing 70 of the individual game machines in a rack and plugging them together
with a high-speed Hewlett-Packard network switch.
‘It took a lot of time because you have to cut all of these things out of the
plastic packaging,’ joked Mr Craig Steffen, a senior research scientist at the
centre, who is one of four scientists working part-time on the project.
The scientists are taking advantage of a standard component of the Sony
video-game console that was originally intended to move and transform pixels
rapidly on a television screen to produce lifelike graphics.
This chip is not the PlayStation 2’s MIPS microprocessor, but a graphics
co-processor known as the Emotion Engine, which is capable of producing up to
6.5 billion mathematical operations a second.
The impressive performance of the game machine underscores a radical shift that
has taken place in the computing world since the end of the Cold War in the late
While the most advanced computing technologies have historically been developed
first for large corporate users and military contractors, increasingly, the
fastest computers are being developed for products meant to be placed under
‘If you look at the economics of game platforms and the power of computing in
toys, this is a long-term market trend and computing trend,’ said Mr Dan Reed,
the supercomputing centre’s director.
The scientists have their eyes on a variety of consumer hardware, he said. For
example, Nvidia, the maker of graphics cards for personal computers, is now
selling a high-performance graphics card that is capable of executing 51 billion
mathematical operations a second.
The pace of the consumer computing world is moving so quickly that the
researchers are building the PlayStation 2-based supercomputer as an experiment
to see how quickly they can take advantage of off-the-shelf low-cost
Despite the computing promise of game consoles that sell for below US$200, the
researchers acknowledged the experiment was most useful for a group of
relatively narrow scientific problems.
They added that while the system is already doing scientific calculations, they
cannot be certain about its computing potential until they write more carefully
tuned software routines that can move data in and out of the custom processor
But they noted that the computer is already running useful calculations on
quantum chromodynamics, or QCD, simulations. QCD is a theory concerning the
so-called strong interactions that bind elementary particles like quarks and
gluons together to form hadrons, the constituents of nuclear matter. — New York