Astrophysicist Replaces Supercomputer with Eight PlayStation 3s
Astrophysicist uses "gravity grid" of PS3s to study theoretical gravity waves.
Oct. 17, 2007 — -- Suffering from its exorbitant price point and a dearth of titles, Sony's PlayStation 3 isn't exactly the most popular gaming platform on the block. But while the console flounders in the commercial space, the PS3 may be finding a new calling in the realm of science and research.
Right now, a cluster of eight interlinked PS3s is busy solving a celestial mystery involving gravitational waves and what happens when a super-massive black hole, about a million times the mass of our own sun, swallows up a star.
As the architect of this research, Dr. Gaurav Khanna is employing his so-called "gravity grid" of PS3s to help measure these theoretical gravity waves -- ripples in space-time that travel at the speed of light -- that Einstein's Theory of Relativity predicted would emerge when such an event takes place.
It turns out that the PS3 is ideal for doing precisely the kind of heavy computational lifting Khanna requires for his project, and the fact that it's a relatively open platform makes programming scientific applications feasible.
"The interest in the PS3 really was for two main reasons," explains Khanna, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth who specializes in computational astrophysics. "One of those is that Sony did this remarkable thing of making the PS3 an open platform, so you can in fact run Linux on it and it doesn't control what you do."
He also says that the console's Cell processor, co-developed by Sony, IBM and Toshiba, can deliver massive amounts of power, comparable even to that of a supercomputer -- if you know how to optimize code and have a few extra consoles lying around that you can string together.
"The PS3/Linux combination offers a very attractive cost-performance solution whether the PS3s are distributed (like Sony and Stanford's Folding@home initiative) or clustered together (like Khanna's), says Sony's senior development manager of research and development, Noam Rimon.
According to Rimon, the Cell processor was designed as a parallel processing device, so he's not all that surprised the research community has embraced it. "It has a general purpose processor, as well as eight additional processing cores, each of which has two processing pipelines and can process multiple numbers, all at the same time," Rimon says.
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