Blunderingly, Sony Nukes PS3 Supercomputing - HotHardware

Blunderingly, Sony Nukes PS3 Supercomputing

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Earlier this week, we covered news that a California PS3 owner, Anthony Ventura, had filed a class action lawsuit against Sony, alleging that the company's decision to terminate the PS3's Linux support via firmware update constituted a false/deceptive marketing practice.

While most PS3 owners never took advantage of the system's Linux capabilities, "Other OS" functionality is critical to the universities and institutions that have deployed PS3 clusters as high-performance compute farms. We talked with several project leads on the impact of Sony's decision, and what it means for low-cost supercomputing programs.


Cluster of PS3s, U.S.A.F. 2,000 Console Supercomputer
Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force


In The Beginning...

Flashback to early 2007. Sony's $599 PlayStation 3 had limped to market just a few months earlier and was then the least-focused and most expensive system on the market. That started to change in February, as researchers began reporting on the PS3's real-world performance in high performance computing (HPC) applications. The Cell processor at the heart of the PlayStation 3 was a monster on paper, but the results that came back from even the earliest clusters showed that the CPU, jointly developed by IBM, Toshiba, and Sony, proved it had a massive set of real-world teeth.

Once word got out that Sony's PS3 offered the performance of a high-end compute cluster for $600, interest spiked. A Folding@Home client appeared in March of 2007 and numerous announcements followed. Today, the PS3 is used in calculating financial risk, scientific applications, HPC clusters, and even by the military. In late 2009, the Air Force research lab put in a request for an additional 2,200 PS3s, to be used for expanding a cluster of 336 systems that were already on site. The military branch built the initial node based on Cell's image-processing capabilities and justified the request by noting: "a single 1U server configured with two 3.2-GHz cell processors can cost up to $8k, while two Sony PS3s cost approximately $600...the approximately tenfold cost difference per GFLOP makes the Sony PS3 the only viable technology for HPC applications."


We propose the above theorem to explain the scientific relationship between black holes, the PS3, and objects of tremendous mass from which our eyes cannot escape...

As researchers began to look to the PS3 as a potential computing platform, they also began documenting the best practices for wringing high performance out of the Cell architecture. Currently, there are published papers on PS3 programming, practical how-tos on setting up a PS3 cluster, and benchmark comparisons between the PS3 and comparable server hardware.


Consider this Exhibit B. Notice how much sexier Lara is on the far right? Supercomputing at work.

Game development and scientific number-crunching have quite a bit more in common than might be apparent at a glance. Both types of programs commonly require low-latency/high-bandwidth processing and both rely on a processor's ability to compute complex interactions between multiple objects moving at different velocities along different vectors. According to Dr. Guarav Khanna, one of the first scientists to build a PS3 cluster back in 2007, there's definitely a potential link between gaming and more lofty-minded pursuits.

"There is huge potential for interaction between game developers and computational scientists," Dr. Khanna said. "Certainly at the level of squeezing performance from computer hardware like you suggest, and—in my view—also in the context of interacting with running simulations, which of course the gaming community has figured out extremely well."

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Well considering that the HPC groups bought a whole lot of the PS3 early in its lifecycle, Sony did just kinda shoot those guys in the face.

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The problem is, no one can depend on even used systems to fill the gap without first re-flashing them. For now, they can still be reflashed with old firmware until/unless Sony pulls that, too.

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Long story short:  Sony was losing money on every system sold to these guys, so decided to screw them over royally.

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3vi1:
so decided to screw them over royally

Standard practice for Sony, so it shouldn't surprise anyone at all.

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Scratch my own earlier response. I thought reflashing was possible; I'm having trouble finding information on a way to do it.

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Joel H:

Scratch my own earlier response. I thought reflashing was possible; I'm having trouble finding information on a way to do it.

Yeah, you can't downgrade - the same as it's always been with the PSP.  They do that purposely so that you can't open up security holes on the fly.

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Exactly so. (referring to an earlier message of 3vi1's, but we're not supposed to thread messages here.)

The model of videogame consoles has been, almost from the start, to sell the unit at a loss and make it up with software sales. Since these guys are never buying the latest cop-killing or World War II game, Sony will never make back that loss. (I seldom bought new games for my PS2 or Xbox 1. So Sony and Microsoft lost money on me. Nyah hah hah!) But unless they stated that a consumer agrees to buy (n) software titles over the next (m) years, but did advertise the "other OS" function as an advantage, they're open to the lawsuit.

Sony has always been a penny-wise and pound-foolish. Despite the large number of PS3s in these arrays, how much of a percentage of total unit sales do they represent? Considering the (generally) progressive uses they're put toward, and the small number of buyers who ever indulged in Linux on the PS3, I would have thought that they'd absorb the loss and just boost sales by releasing games where the men carried around even larger guns and swords, appealing even more greatly to adolescent males with masculinity issues. (A Sony tradition. It was getting pretty ridiculous in EQOA when I quit.)

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Clem, et al:

There's another angle to this that bugs me, but that I didn't have space to dive into. When it was launching the PS3 (and losing $200-$300 per console), Sony clearly thought the high-performance computing angle and Linux support were worth talking up as unique console capabilities. Marketing tools, in other words. Sony sometimes makes statements that make me wonder if the company lives on planet Earth with the rest of us, but I don't think the PS3 group was so deluded as to think everyone + dog was going to suddenly launch compute clusters or run Linux as their OS. Knowing these were niche features, they still took advantage of them to create product buzz.

If it was worth a loss of $200-$300 per console then, how is it suddenly not worth a loss 1/10 of that? Especially since PS3 hardware will begin earning Sony money in just a few months? Obviously, as others have said, this is about piracy--which (should) make it a question of whether or not the bad press and trouble created around feature removal are worth the extremely theoretical loss of pirated content. Remember, there is no underground black market in PS3 hacks--as far as anyone knows, it's been done by one person.

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I couldn't understand this article, and I don't concider myself illiterate. Then the funny pictures of Pirates and Larry's hot tub date made me think this is the most sophisticated Onion article ever. But based on the comments, it seems like legit reporting. I don't get it.

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This is an old May 2010 story.

A lot has happened since then. SONY's move to disallow Linux on PS3 boxes got them a lot of negative attention and they were hacked, cracked, and jacked because of what they did.

You haven't been hearing anything about this in the news?

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