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PS3 cluster creates homemade, cheaper supercomputer

UMass professor joins eight PlayStation cell chips to run highly complex calculations

By Sharon Gaudin
October 24, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A professor at the University of Massachusetts wasn't just goofing off when he started hooking up one PlayStation 3 (PS3) system after another.

Gaurav Khanna, an astrophysicist working at the university's Dartmouth campus,  has been building his own supercomputer of sorts with the popular gaming console.

The professor has been renting time on supercomputers at NASA and the National Science Foundation to run highly complicated calculations on the amount of radiation emitted when a black hole swallows a star. That supercomputing time, though, doesn't come easily or cheap, Khanna said. In an average year, he rents about 30,000 hours, which costs between $20,000 and $30,000, a significant chunk of his grant money.

To ease his supercomputing plight, Khanna turned to the cell chip inside the PS3. By linking eight of them together, he said he gets the same processing power as a supercomputer with 200 processors.

"For $4,000 or so, I can get eight PS3s that can do the same task that I'd do on a supercomputer," he said. "For a one-time cost, I have this resource I can use privately. I can use it indefinitely over and over again. That's hugely attractive. That's why I considered the project. I have my own supercomputer right here. There's no elaborate process for getting time. There's no waiting. It's just mine."

Khanna said he spent a month testing the system to make sure it was giving him accurate calculations, and he has been using it in actual research for the past two weeks.

Calculations that would take nearly a year to finish on a desktop computer are being done by the cell chip array in less than a day.

Khanna said the cell chip, which was collaboratively developed by Sony Corp., IBM and Toshiba Corp., is designed to have a single processor and eight compute engines, making it more powerful than dual-core or even quad-core chips. The engines don't handle input/output. They don't talk to the keyboard, mouse or memory. They do raw computations very, very fast, according to Khanna.

"It has a unique design. It has a lot more potential -- a better processor in my opinion," he added. "What's unique is that they made it an open platform. Normally with a game console, the maker controls who can run what on it. What Sony did was make the PS3 an open platform. They let you run whatever you want on it. It has the full capabilities of a normal computer. You can run Firefox or whatever you want. It gave me the possibility of doing whatever I want with it."

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