The U.S. Air Force last year bought 1,700 PS3’s to cluster together for research.  The Air Force Research Lab did this to take advantage of  the significant capabilities of Sony’s Cell processor for high-def video processing.  At the time Sony allowed Linux to be installed on the PS3 which of course was the reason the Air Force chose the PS3.  This setup gives the Air Force an interesting set-up while certainly at a fraction of the cost of a super computer.

The Advanced Computing Architectures team at the Information Directorate considered several alternatives to arrive at the configuration of the proposed system, including the Sony BCU-100, IBM Blade Q22, and IBM PowerXCell 8i CAB accelerators cards,” said the Air Force last year. “In particular, the performance capabilities of the Cell Broadband engine were examined in considerable detail on each of the algorithms.

The result was the 500 TeraFLOPS Heterogeneous Clusterpowered by PS3s but connected to subcluster heads of dual-quad Xeons with multiple GPGPUs.

Recently Sony has dis-allowed Linux to be installed on the PS3 with firmware 3.21 losing the ‘install other OS’ option.  Naturally the Air Force is not using the PS3 to log into the PlayStation Network to play games which would prompt the firmware update, but if the hardware fails, especially when stacked as close as these units are, according to the Air Force’s Research Laboratory, Sony takes the liberty of applying the latest firmware even to refurb’d units.

It remains to be seen if Sony will respond supporting this unusual situation with the PS3, but this might be the beginning of the end of this project that started with a $663,000 contact to start.  Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.