This Supercomputer Got Game

 
 
By Francis Chu  |  Posted 2003-05-28
 
 
 
The supercomputing club got a new member this month, but the newest high-performance system is not based on Unix cluster or grid computer systems. In fact, this supercomputer might be more at home in a suburban den than in a lab.

The researchers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications assembled the supercomputer using 70 Sony Playstation 2 game consoles running as a cluster over a standard Ethernet network.

NCSA researchers integrated tools used in conventional supercomputing clusters into the system, including the MPI (Message Passing Interface) that handles the communications between PS2 nodes in the cluster when running applications. Also integrated are the PBS (Portable Batch System) and Maui Scheduler, which manage job processes in the cluster.

The system, which cost about $50,000, was built from retail PS2 purchases.

The key to the PS2 system is the game consoles ability to run Linux and the custom designed Emotion Engine graphics processor that can crunch more than 6.5 billion calculations per second.

The Emotion chip allows the PS2 to generate gorgeous 3D graphics in video games using millions of polygons at high resolution. In the supercomputing system, however, the processing cycles are harnessed to tackle custom applications.

The limited amount of memory in each PS2 system (32MB) could be a limiting factor in the systems performance, and custom fine-tuning would be required to optimize the computing cycles for each application run on the system.

Although the PS2 supercomputer doesnt rank among the worlds 500 fastest supercomputers, it is still capable of a half-trillion operations per second, which falls within the definition of a supercomputing system.

Of course, I dont expect enterprise companies to employ video game consoles to run applications. The researchers at NCSA built the system to see how inexpensive it would be, and how much time it would take, to build a supercomputing system using off-the-shelf hardware.

After all, large enterprises and the scientific community have long used commodity hardware to build clusters that can run large transactions or HPC (high-performance computing) applications. There are already many smaller vendors building large blade cluster HPC systems from off-the-shelf hardware. But the NCSA project is intriguing: Could Nintendo be the next big thing in genetic sequencing?

Game consoles for supercomputing is reality. Whats next? Share your ideas at francis_chu@ziffdavis.com.

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