We've discussed Sony's decision to shut down Other OS functionality and abandon the supercomputing market several
times in the past 12 months. One of the expansions in progress even as Sony killed these programs, dubbed Condor, is now fully online for the first time. This new cluster is composed of 1,716 PS3s and, if it delivers as promised, will greatly enhance the quality of image processing available to the Air Force and Air National Guard.
The system has been some years in the building—the Rome NY-based research lab first began requesting additional PS3's back in 2009. Digital image processing has always been one of the PS3's greatest strengths, some of Sony's original demonstrations back in 2005-2006 focused on the Cell
processor's ability to crunch simultaneous video streams. With 7 SPE's per PS3 (the eighth is deactivated), the 1,716 systems offer a total of 12,012 processors.
Morgan Bishop, surrounded by PS3's
The Condor is, according to the Air Force, one of the forty fastest computers in the world and will hopefully solve a pervasive problem for the modern military. Up until the last sixty years, the various branches of the military all suffered from a dearth of aerial data. Thanks to modern satellite communications and covert ops, the drought has become a glut. Getting information has suddenly become easy; determining at a glance what's important and what isn't has become extremely difficult.
The Air Force hopes to use the PS3 cluster to allow for real-time surveillance over large areas without sacrificing image quality. According to Mike Barnell, director of HPC at the Rome Research Lab, Condor will be able to keep 24/7 watch over a 15 square mile area. User control will be unprecedented; Condor's users will reportedly be able to turn and rotate the camera in a manner reminiscent of modern gaming. "You can literally rewind or predict forward (in the future), based on the information you have,” Barnell said.
'Condor' is a word that conveys a sense of majesty and flight—so why'd it end up slapped on one of the ugliest birds known to exist? Even worse—why do condors look like Skeksis?
What became the Condor project began with just eight PS3s. Impressive results led to official approval for a larger cluster of 336 systems. Once the Department of Defense approved $2.5 in funding for Condor, the Rome Lab bought as many systems as it could then afford—a total of 1700. Barnell notes that an equivalent supercomputer would've cost his team at least 10x as much and claims that using off-the-shelf hardware allows for substantial power savings. When the machine's full capacity isn't needed, the lab can turn off hundreds of PS3s to reduce power consumption.
Condor is also doing fundamental research in compute intelligence. The Rome Lab states that the machine is capable of scanning up to 20 pages of text per second, during which time it also extrapolates missing words with a 99.9 percent accuracy rate.