Air Force to Build a $2M Supercomputer Using PlayStations

The U.S. Air Force is in the process of building a 500 teraFLOPS supercomputer that will only cost $2 million. Impossible, you say? Not when you build it with PlayStation 3 (PS3)consoles.

The Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., have already built a cluster with 336 SonyPS3s and are beefing that up by another 1,700. The group received a $2 million grant to increase the cluster of $300 consoles, plus some other hardware to control the cluster.

The Air Force plans to have the 1,700 consoles fully integrated into the system by June as part of the Department of Defense’s High Performance Computer Modernization Program. Once it’s finished, the supercomputing cluster should be able to deliver approximately 500 teraFLOPS of computing performance; enough to land it a spot among the top ten most-powerful supercomputers today, as ranked by the closely watched Top500 project.

According to Stars & Stripes, the military newspaper that first covered the cluster’s creation, researchers will be able to perform a number of high-complexity simulations like Back Projection Synthetic Aperture Radar Imager formation, high-definition video image processing, and Neuromorphic Computing, which mimics human nervous systems.

“With Neuromorphic Computing, as an example, we will broadcast an image to all PS3s and ask if it matches an image it has in its hard drive,” Richard Linderman, senior scientist for Advanced Computing Architectures at the laboratory, told S&S.

The system will use 300 to 320 kilowatts of power under full load and about 10% to 30% of that in standby. Most supercomputers rely on power draws in the multi-megawatt range. Linderman said that for much of the time the cluster will only be running the nodes it needs and it will be turned off when not in use. The system, which also uses commodity PCs running Linux, is able to utilize about 60% of the PS3’s full power.

Big promise, small delivery

The news marks something of a long-overdue validation for Sony’s PS3 and its Cell Broadband Engine processor, which debuted in 2007 with an awful lot of promise, but have since both fallen well short of expectations. While it remains the most advanced game console on the market, the PS3 cost $599 at launch, far too expensive for the price-sensitive mass market.

It still struggles to keep pace with Microsoft Xbox 360, and for quite some time, Sony had continued selling more of its smash hit PlayStation 2 consoles than its newer PS3.

The Cell processor also proved disappointing for IBM, which developed it in union with Sony. IBM tried selling blade systems with the Cell but never found a market. As a result, IBM discontinued Cell development last year.

Sony has begun considering designs for the next generation of PlayStation and is reportedly considering commodity parts, like an x86 CPU and GPU from either AMD or Nvidia.

In the meantime, the Air Force’s continued use of the platform for a decidedly non-gaming purpose isn’t the first PlayStation 3-based supercomputer. The most famous is the Folding@home project, which lets individual gamers leave their systems on to run protein-folding simulations while idle. The project, run out of Stanford University, made the Guinness Book of World Records as the first petaFLOP distributed computing network.

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.