Electronic Design

Professor Turns PS3s Into Supercomputing Cluster

The next time you’re looking to build a supercomputer, check out the gaming consoles at your local department store. That’s what Frank Mueller, an associate professor of computer science at North Carolina State University, did in January when he bought eight PlayStation 3s and assembled the first academic computing cluster based on the popular consoles (see the figure). It has the power of a small supercomputer but only costs about $5000, which is less than many desktop computers that have a fraction of the computing muscle. “Scientific computing is just number crunching, which the PS3s are very good at given the Cell processor and deploying them in a cluster,” says Mueller. Each PS3 has six operational special-purpose cores for calculations and one general-purpose core that’s two-way multithreaded in Mueller’s configuration, giving the cluster a total of 64 logical processors and plenty of power. “Right now one limitation is the 256-Mbyte RAM memory constraint, but it might be possible to retrofit more RAM. We just haven’t cracked the case and explored that option yet,” says Mueller. Another challenge is the cluster’s limited speed for the double-precision calculations that scientific applications require. Even so, Mueller says, about 10,000 PS3s could be linked to create the fastest computer in the world despite these single-precision capabilities and networking limitations. “Here at NC State we will use it for educational purposes and for research,” says Mueller. “We are working with scientists to determine the needs and how our cluster can be used to their benefit, and our computer science faculty is already using the cluster to teach classes in operating systems, with parallel systems, compilers, and gaming likely to follow.”

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