U.S. Air Force PS3 Cluster Computing Project Screwed By Sony

The Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, New York picked up 336 PS3 systems in 2009 and built itself a 53 teraFLOP processing cluster. Once completed as a proof of concept, Air Force researchers then scaled up by a factor of six and went in search of 2,200 more consoles(later scaled back to 1,700). The $663,000 contract was awarded on January 6, 2010, to a small company called Fixstars that could provide 1,700 160GB PS3 systems to the government.

When Sony issued a recent PlayStation 3 updater emoving the device’s ability to install alternate operating systems like Linux, it did so to protect copyrighted content—but several research projects such as this one suffered collateral damage.

Full Story – HERE

From my limited experience with the PS3, I believe you have the option to deny the “upgrades”. Why the air force would bother installing the upgrades on a perfectly functional cluster is beyond my comprehension.  You’d think the press that Sony gets from major projects such as this, they would at least tip the USAF off and tell them to avoid upgrading because of the ill effects it would bring to their cluster.

1700 PS3 systems is a lot!  I wonder if the USAF will be auctioning those off now for cheap?  :P

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SoldiersForCanada May 12, 2010 at 03:55 pm

The issue with PS3 updates is that numerous features of the console are deactivated until the new update is downloaded and installed. Functionality such as wireless/wired networking, multimedia playback and the ability to play some single-player offline games are deactivated.

The purpose of this update and the cause behind Sony’s fear is the initial iPhone hacker, GeoHot (George Hotz). He managed to exploit the PS3 into allowing him to run some of his own code trough the “Use other OS” feature. Sony panicked and has ultimately nuked many promising projects involving PS3’s.

“Sony killed the mini-supercomputer star”

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Admin (Mike) May 12, 2010 at 08:30 pm

How would their consoles know if there was an update out unless they were connected to the internet? Answer is they wouldn’t. Seems to me that the USAF is just worrying about nothing, because even if they need new playstation 3’s, like I mentioned in some later comments, they would probably be able to flash them with the old firmware anyway.

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Jeff May 12, 2010 at 04:32 pm

The USAF did not install the new updates, but rather are worrying about the lack of obtaining new machines if the old ones fail, since all the new playstations will have no other OS installed

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John May 12, 2010 at 04:40 pm

They don’t install the new updates, but now all the new PS3’s have the “Other OS” option removed.

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Josh May 12, 2010 at 04:45 pm

That’s pretty interesting. I recall reading something some time ago about computer systems used by the government for code breaking, and it mentioned the NSA’s (I believe) use of PS3’s. Something about how “regular” computer processors were good at calculations that were based on the results of a previous calculation, and the graphics processors (like found in video game consoles) were much better at calculations that were “fresh,” or not based on some previous calculation (or something to that effect, I think). Pretty interesting that the best technology for something like that comes from video games!

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Mike May 12, 2010 at 05:49 pm

As stated, the problem is not that the updates will wreck the PS3’s they already have. The problem is that all new PS3’s are made with the newest updates already applied. Therefore, any new ones they buy, will be unusable.

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Jim May 12, 2010 at 08:23 pm

Jeff is correct, if the PS3 fails and is sent in to Sony for repair, the latest firmware will be applied automatically. This will kill the Linux. Though so long as the harddrive is fine, it can easily be removed before repair and should work when the unit is sent back. On the bright side these are not networked into the Sony PSN, so it won’t update on it’s own. Then again, I’ve never been forced to update my PS3 firmware, but do anyhow.

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Admin (Mike) May 12, 2010 at 08:28 pm

Since these consoles are modded I doubt they would be warrantied by Sony any longer. Therefore the USAF would not be sending them in for repair.

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Admin (Mike) May 12, 2010 at 08:25 pm

Can’t they just flash it and install the old firmware? You can do that with everything else.

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Dom May 12, 2010 at 09:11 pm

Something important to remember is that Sony doesn’t directly make any money from these sorts of uses of the PS3 — the console itself is a loss leader. Yes, scientific and spook use is good press, but if the user doesn’t buy games, the transaction is a net loss for Sony. A thousand units here, a thousand units there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money. I don’t think it’s well known what a PS3 actually costs to build, but at least at launch it was built at a loss, and the price has come down significantly. Even if some money is made on the sale nowadays, the follow-up revenue is zero, and there’s still support/warranty costs Sony incurs.

IMO Sony should embrace the idea and just get on with the business of making profitable data center machines. Rack mountable, etc., with a higher price. Even if you had to pay $1000 for a Sony business version of PS3, it would be far less than the cost of even low-end blade servers today. Or if nothing else, license the support for Linux OS for a hefty fee, say $500. They can make this work, they just have to figure out how.

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Admin (Mike) May 13, 2010 at 03:12 am

I like your idea Dom. I am actually surprised the air force tries to do things like this on a budget. I would have thought they would just put together a cluster of supercomputers and charge it to the american people. I like the idea that they took a proof of concept and ran with it.

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Dom May 14, 2010 at 07:01 am

Well, I work in this business, and I do so for a government customer. I work for the Coast Guard now, which is an agency that cannot afford to splurge and waste like what you’re describing, so we innovate. But cavalier spending on IT definitely does happen a lot in DHS/DoD. However, I am sure though that there are portions of the AF that have great ideas but small budgets to carry them out. For them, this is a great alternative to SGI or other big-money supercomputing outfits.

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Sean May 26, 2010 at 01:37 pm

I promise the reason they went with the PS3 in the first place was to move forward with Commercial-Off-The-Shelf technology. The point of doing it that way is so that replacements and repairs can be done with parts from a local BestBuy or RadioShack. Its a model that DoD is implementing wherever possible. The difficulty of the old way of doing business for the DoD involved the design, manufacture and implementation of custom technologies, even for simple things. It was, in most cases, a requirement.

But DoD must have overlooked the availability of their own government auctions of older hardware. They get rid of tons of hardware every time they update, which can involve hundreds and sometimes thousands of simple workstations that could be modified with a minimal amount of effort. Just update the BIOSs and network adapters, rip out the hard drives and net boot the things into a cluster.

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Gerrit Harkness July 14, 2012 at 10:19 pm

I think if the government really wanted to make use of a private system on a budget they should tap into the bit coin network. People are building super computers in their garages in exchange for bit coins that have no intrinsic value other than the amount of data that is crunched. They are even using high end graphics processors like in the PS3. This would be a Pay -as – you -go solution for government or private supercomputing.

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