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Blunderingly, Sony Nukes PS3 Supercomputing
Date: May 07, 2010
Author: Joel Hruska
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."

Real World Impact, Conclusion
Not all of the researchers we spoke to believe Sony's Other OS restriction is a major problem. When we spoke to Dr. Frank Mueller, the first person to build a PS3 compute cluster, he confirmed that "there is no future to low-cost Cell clusters based on PS3s," but pointed out that researchers are already moving towards OpenCL and GPU computing.

IBM sells second-generation Cell blade severs with vastly improved double-precision floating point performance and NVIDIA is pushing GPU computing, but nothing on the market delivers the same benefits for such a low cost. The situation is made all the more frustrating by the fact that it didn't have to happen. Sony clearly knows who its HPC customers are.  It would have required a minimum amount of effort to earmark a small run of pre-Slim hardware (or a certain batch of PS3 Slims) for HPC researchers.

Sony: So afraid of pirates, they'll screw anyone to save themselves.
Although looking at this fellow, we have to admit, they might have a point.

Alternatively, the company could have continued to make such systems available to college faculty and students who had appropriate ID. Instead, Sony opted to yank the rug out from everyone at the same time, without even bothering to give the HPC folks any warning. Even if the courts eventually rule Sony's removal of Other OS functionality doesn't constitute a breach of California law, there's still something to be said for not alienating a group of customers you openly courted just three years ago.

Our future, God help us.

Gamers, of course, are the ones who will pay for Sony's mistake long term. Don't expect the scientific/HPC community to come rushing as saviors when it comes time for Sony to babble about the PS4—and without the help of this august assemblage, maybe we'll get stuck with games featuring cutting-edge 1987 graphics fidelity. Leisure Suit Larry, here we come.

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