November 20, 2009
The U.S. Air Force is looking to buy 2,200 Sony PlayStation 3 game consoles to build out a research supercomputer, according to an document posted on the federal government's procurement Web site.
The PlayStation 3s will be used at the Air Force Research Laboratory's information directorate in Rome, N.Y., where they will be added to an existing cluster of 336 PlayStation 3s being used to conduct supercomputing research. The Air Force will use the system to "to determine the best fit for implementation of various applications," including commercial and internally developed software specific to the PS3's Cell Broadband Engine processor architecture. The research will help the Air Force decide where Cell Broadband Engine processor-derived hardware and software could be used in military systems. The Air Force has used the cluster to test a method of processing multiple radar images into higher resolution composite images (known as synthetic aperture radar image formation), high-def video processing, and "neuromorphic computing," or building computers with brain-like properties. The PlayStation 3's eight-processor Cell powers other supercomputers, including the world's second-fastest, IBM's RoadRunner, at Los Alamos National Laboratory. In June, the Department of Defense awarded $2 million for this research under its High Performance Computing Modernization Program, the DOD's arm for supercomputing research, development, test, and evaluation. That follows an initial investment of $118,000 on the original cluster. Before it won the research award in 2008, the information directorate's advanced computing architectures team considered alternative configurations and the possibility of a hybrid system, but found multicore Xeon servers slower and more expensive than PS3s, and GPGPUs to be slower in some important types of calculations. The Air Force Research Laboratory's information directorate spends about $700 million annually on R&D, in areas such as collaboration, networking, cybersecurity, and computer modeling.
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