[Beowulf] Rome Lab's supercomputer is made up of 1, 700 off-the-shelf PlayStation 3 gaming consoles

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Thu Mar 24 03:45:42 PDT 2011


Rome Lab's supercomputer is made up of 1,700 off-the-shelf PlayStation 3
gaming consoles

Published: Wednesday, March 23, 2011, 6:00 AM     Updated: Wednesday, March
23, 2011, 8:02 AM

Dave Tobin / The Post-Standard By Dave Tobin / The Post-Standard

Jhn Berry / The Post-Standard Morgan Bishop, a computer scientist at the Air
Force Research Lab, in Rome, is surrounded by a high-speed, image-processing
network of 1,716 PlayStation 3 systems linked to each other and other

Rome, NY -- Computer scientists just up the Thruway at Rome’s Air Force
Research Lab have assembled one of the world’s largest, fastest and cheapest
supercomputers — and it’s made from PlayStation 3s.

By linking together 1,716 PlayStation 3s, they’ve created a supercomputer
that’s very good at processing, manipulating and interpreting vast amounts of
imagery. This will provide analysts with new levels of detail from the
pictures gathered on long surveillance flights by spy planes.

The PlayStation 3 is a video gaming console that originally sold for about
$500. It was developed by Sony, released in 2006 and is known for its
sizzlingly clear video graphics.

The Air Force calls the souped-up PlayStations the Condor Supercomputer and
says it is among the 40 fastest computers in the world. The Condor went
online late last year, and it will likely change the way the Air Force and
the Air National Guard watch things on the ground.

The creation, while offbeat, illustrates the modern job for the operation
that began as Rome Air Development Center in 1951, researching radar. It has
survived the closing of Griffiss Air Force Base in 1995 to find a new niche.

These days, Rome Lab’s research focuses on information technology,
particularly cybersecurity and high-performance computing. The lab employs
789 people in military and civilian jobs, with a payroll of $82 million a
year. It oversees contracts worth nearly $3 billion.

Rome is helping the military face a growing problem: Great advances in
airborne surveillance systems have the military drowning in visual data.

Meanwhile, the Air Force and the Air National Guard, as well as federal
agencies such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which already gather
surveillance video from the air, are pursuing technologies to gather more.
The goal: constant surveillance over large areas.
2011-02-22-jb-romelab3.JPGView full sizeJohn Berry / The Post-Standard A
PlayStation 3 video game console, one of the 1,716 systems linked together at
Rome Lab to form a supercomputer.

The Condor helps meet that. The Air Force has begun using a new radar
technology dubbed “Gotcha,” with far sharper resolution than previous radar.
To maximize Gotcha’s potential, the power of a computer such as the Condor is

The Condor will enable 24-hour, real-time surveillance over a roughly
15-mile-wide area, said Mark Barnell, director of high-performance computing
at the Rome research lab.

Video processed from the radar signals can be viewed in real time or played
back to investigate what led to an event — an explosion, an uprising or an
ambush. As with a video game, a viewer can change perspectives, going from
air to ground to look around buildings.

“You can literally rewind or predict forward (in the future), based on the
information you have,” Barnell said.

Development of the Condor started nearly five years ago, shortly after Sony
put the PlayStation 3 on the market. Richard W. Linderman, then senior
scientist at Rome’s Air Force research lab, brought the new PlayStation 3
home and began experimenting. The PS3 can run Linux, a software operating
system used in most of the world’s supercomputers.

At Rome Lab, Linderman asked his research team to try linking eight
PlayStation 3s to see what they could do. Impressed, he increased the number
to 336. That worked even better. What could more than a thousand do?

Rome Lab asked the Department of Defense for $2.5 million to assemble its
supercomputer. By the time money to buy that many was approved in 2009,
PlayStation 3s were hard to find. Rome Lab bought as many as they could —

To custom-build a supercomputer without using commercial off-the-shelf
PlayStation 3s would likely have cost 10 times as much, Barnell said. In
addition, the Condor uses a fraction of the energy that comparably sized
supercomputers use. Portions of it — say 300 machines — can be turned on
while the rest are off, depending on a job’s needs.

Rome Lab plans to work with the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Fighter
Wing, Barnell said. The 174th is seeking FAA permission to fly MQ-9 Reapers
in Northern New York, starting this summer.  2011-02-22-jb-romelab1.JPGView
full sizeJohn Berry / The Post-Standard Mark Barnell, director of
high-performance computing at the Air Force Research Lab, in Rome, stands
with a data wall that displays the video output of the center's Condor
Supercomputer. This sample image was made by a radar system aboard an

The Air Force is also using the Condor to process ground-based radar images
of space objects, again with extraordinary clarity. Barnell shows images of a
space shuttle orbiting Earth at 5 miles a second. Without Condor processing,
the shuttle image is a blurry black triangle. With Condor processing, it is
sharp and distinct. It’s clear that its payload doors are open.

“This is important because other countries are pursuing space missions, and
we don’t always know their intent,” Barnell said.

The Condor’s third major use is for computational intelligence — a form of
computer reasoning and decision-making. One example is with words: Condor can
scan or process text in any language at 20 pages a second, fill in missing
sections it has never seen with 99.9 percent accuracy and tell the user
whether the information is important.

“Jobs that used to take hours or days now take seconds,” Barnell said.

Barnell cautions that the Condor is not the “Holy Grail of computing.”

Rome Lab is sharing Condor access with researchers at other government
agencies, colleges and universities. Among them are Cornell University,
Dartmouth College and the universities of Florida, Maryland and Tennessee.
Researchers at Syracuse University and State University Institute of
Technology at Utica/Rome are also expected to have access, Barnell said.

As impressive as the Condor is, it won’t be for long. Barnell envisions
integrating smartphone processors into high-performance computing, putting
the power of a Condor into a small surveillance drone the size of your fist,
something weighing less than a pound and using the energy of a standard light

“In a couple of years, this will fade away,” he said.

Contact Dave Tobin at dtobin at syracuse.com or 470-3277.

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