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Air Force to buy 2,200 PlayStation 3 consoles for supercomputer

By Mitch Betts
December 7, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - The U.S. Air Force recently issued a request for proposals to purchase 2,200 Sony PlayStation 3 video game consoles. Does the Air Force plan to play lots of Grand Theft Auto?

No -- rather, the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., is interested in the chip technology inside the PS3, specifically the Cell Broadband Engine Architecture, according a blog post by Gartner Inc. analyst Andrea DiMaio. The Air Force is studying whether the PS3 chips could be a cost-effective technology for modernizing the military's high-performance computing systems.

Supercomputer experts at the Air Force already have 336 PS3 consoles hooked together in an experimental Linux-based cluster. Now they want 2,200 more to expand the research project. The laboratory evaluated chips from other vendors, such as IBM and Intel Corp., but found the PS3 chips to be much cheaper.

An RFP-related document justified the purchase this way: "With respect to cell processors, a single 1U server configured with two 3.2-GHz cell processors can cost up to $8k, while two Sony PS3s cost approximately $600. Though a single 3.2-GHz cell processor can deliver over 200 GFLOPS, whereas the Sony PS3 configuration delivers approximately 150 GFLOPS, the approximately tenfold cost difference per GFLOP makes the Sony PS3 the only viable technology for HPC applications."

DiMaio said the Air Force's interest in the PS3 is in line with the trend toward the consumerization of IT. "This is a pristine example of how consumer technology can be used in pretty demanding government contexts -- although still in an R&D rather than operational capacity," she wrote.

The Air Force said the PS3 Cell processor has shown strong potential for applications such as high-definition video image processing and "neuromorphic computing," which mimics the neuro-biological architecture of the human nervous system.

"The additional PS3s will allow the R&D community to expand its current capabilities and investigate other applications that require many more processors to perform real-time tasks," the Air Force document said.

Read more about Hardware in Computerworld's Hardware Topic Center.



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