The $133 Million Playstation 3

The Cell microprocesssor is the very powerful heart of the Playstation 3 gaming console. People have found all sorts of uses for them other than playing Assassin's Creed, including using them for medical research through the Folding at Home program. Now the US military has spent $133 million to put together the world's fastest supercomputer, capable of performing over one quadrillion calculations per second (a Petaflop) using almost 13,000 slightly improved versions of the Cell processor, along with some AMD Opterons. They call it Roadrunner.

To put the performance of the machine in perspective, Thomas P. D’Agostino, the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said that if all six billion people on earth used hand calculators and performed calculations 24 hours a day and seven days a week, it would take them 46 years to do what the Roadrunner can in one day.

The machine is an unusual blend of chips used in consumer products and advanced parallel computing technologies. The lessons that computer scientists learn by making it calculate even faster are seen as essential to the future of both personal and mobile consumer computing.

The high-performance computing goal, known as a petaflop — one thousand trillion calculations per second — has long been viewed as a crucial milestone by military, technical and scientific organizations in the United States, as well as a growing group including Japan, China and the European Union. All view supercomputing technology as a symbol of national economic competitiveness.

A quadrillion is one thousand million million. The military will have Roadrunner turning its attention to calculations about nuclear weapons, after it has a go at climate modeling for a while.