Playstation 3: A Discount Supercomputer?

It can cost thousands of dollars for researchers to run simulations on supercomputers — so some computer scientists have decided to build cheaper ones — out of Playstation 3's.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Another business that's seeing a lot of green in these bleak economic times: video games. Retailer GameStop announced this week that its quarterly sales are up 22 percent from last year, and it's planning to open 400 more stores. And a few penny-pinching scientists are snatching up one particular gaming system to create discount supercomputers. That's this week's Science Out of the Box.

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LYDEN: Researchers need supercomputers to run simulations that are far too complex for a home PC, but there aren't a lot of supercomputers around, and running simulations can cost thousands of dollars. That's where the PlayStation 3 comes in.

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LYDEN: That's the sound a PS3 makes when you turn it on. And a few years ago, researchers figured out that if they took a bunch of PlayStation 3s and installed Linux and networked them up, they could create super-powerful clusters of computing power.

These makeshift supercomputers have been put to work solving differential equations, analyzing linguistic trends, even simulating the vibrations of black holes in outer space.

Chris Poulin is a computer scientist at the University of Massachusetts. He's written step-by-step instructions on how to do this yourself. He says the PS3 has something not found in the Nintendo Wii, the Xbox 360, even your home PC. It's called the cell processor.

Mr. CHRIS POULIN (Computer Scientist, University of Massachusetts): The cell processor's in fact so powerful that the fastest supercomputer in the world, the IBM Roadrunner, utilizes it as well.

LYDEN: But why get these processors from PlayStation 3s?

Mr. FRANK MUELLER (Associate Professor, North Carolina State University): Being at a university, of course our funds are limited. And I'm always trying to find something that's interesting for the students but also affordable from our point of view, and this seemed to be like the perfect compromise here.

LYDEN: That's Frank Mueller. He's an associate professor at North Carolina State University. A couple of years ago, he created one of the first academic PS3 clusters. He says it's $50,000 worth of computer power for a mere $5,000. Dare I say score?

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