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December 3, 2010

Air Force’s PS3 Condor Cluster Takes Flight

Tiffany Trader

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has marked the launch of its Condor PS3 Cluster with a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony on December 1. Initially unveiled last year, the cluster is made up of 1,760 Sony PlayStation 3 processors and 168 general-purpose graphical processing units, providing an estimated 500 teraflops of performance. That places Condor among the top 50 of the world’s fastest systems. The pricetag? A mere $2 million.

Mark Barnell, director of AFRL’s High Power Computing, explained that comparable systems would cost at least $20 million to $40 million.

Sony sells the systems at a loss with the aim of recouping the money selling expensive games and gaming accessories, such as memory sticks — but in the process they are inadvertently subsidizing the military and anyone else who wants to use the gaming hardware for scientific purposes.

This is not your parent’s Pong, that’s for sure. Instead it’s probably the biggest supercomputing bang you can get for your buck. The Air Force Research Lab took a really sophisticated gaming system that uses the power of the cutting-edge Cell processor to boost speed, and put it to task running scientific applications. That’s the kind of outside-the-box thinking that can lead to high success or tanking failure. But in this case, it is working out very well, as Barnell elucidates in an article at Airman Magazine:

“By using the cell processors in the PS3s and the GPGPUs in unison, we’ve produced a system that does a very good job at handling this kind of [surveillance] information. We’ve developed the most powerful heterogeneous supercomputer in the world for a fraction of the cost of building it using individual chips and servers.”

Barnell has also stated that the Condor Cluster is the DoD’s most powerful “interactive” supercomputer. He explains what this means in a Q&A at

From the perspective of most of the supercomputing centers in the DoD, when millions or tens of millions of dollars are invested, you don’t want to waste cycles. So these computers are run in what is called “batch mode.” They keep these systems running at very high levels, all of the time, so the applications that use them are carefully managed and optimized.

On this computer, we’re not tied to these metrics, mainly because it was so inexpensive. We do a lot of research and development on this system, so we start with only a few nodes, make sure [the software] works, and scale up from there. We have a lot of users [in the DoD] who, when they’re actually developing code, have a tendency to hang a machine or two. When you do that, the computer becomes ineffective until we reboot it.

It should be noted that Condor uses the old PS3 systems, not the new PS3 Slims. Sony made a decision not to support Linux anymore, so if the systems are given firmware upgrades, they won’t be able to run the Linux OS anymore. They can’t even be sent in for repair because the mandatory upgrade will render them useless to AFRL. Sony could choose to reverse the policy, and with the all the publicity around the Air Force’s new wunder-cluster, they may just change their minds.

In the meantime, the AFRL is using the system for targeted applications such as neuromorphic artificial intelligence research, synthetic aperture radar enhancement, image enhancement and pattern recognition research. For further details on these interesting projects, check out coverage from DVIDS.

The Condor Cluster will be available to all DoD users on a shared basis. It uses less than one-tenth the power of a comparable system, making it cost-effective and green.

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