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Game computers hit clustering big time

Jun 03, 20032 mins

* Several organizations put Playstations to work in clusters

A variety of organizations are realizing the value of the processor used by the Sony Playstation game console and putting together supercomputer clusters with it.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and the University of Illinois are both looking at clustered Playstations for scientific computing and visualization. Scientists are trying to adapt the Playstation’s Emotion Engine processor for these non-graphic applications. The Emotion Engine CPU has two vector units which manipulate three-dimensional polygons.

The cluster has 65 nodes dedicated to computing, four nodes for user logon and development, and a single node for software application testing. All these nodes run a version of Linux which is based on an early Red Hat Linux distribution. Each node fits in a standard rack configuration. And all nodes connect to two HP ProCurve 2650 switches via 100M bit/sec Ethernet. The switches connect to each other over Gigabit Ethernet.

A Playstation 2 only has a limited amount (32M bytes) of memory on board, which can limit “the problem size that can run on the cluster,” says Craig Steffen, NCSA senior research scientist.

The Playstation 2 also limits the type of problem that can run on the cluster, Steffan says. For instance, it does not use a fast network, and there is not an easy way to get the results out of the vector units as they are designed to put results into graphics, not get them back out. In addition, Steffan says the vector units have limited memories, which also limit the type of problem and size that can be run on the cluster.

At the University of Manchester, researchers have installed the grid computing Globus Toolkit v2.0 on a Playstation 2. Using a Unicore Gateway – because Java is not available on the PS2 – University of Manchester users can submit jobs to the PS2, as well as the university’s other supercomputers. The Playstation also runs its own Web server software and appeared in the High-Performance Computing Challenge at the SC2002 conference.

NCSA claims the value of using inexpensive computers like the $300 Playstation is huge for clustering. As PCs replace traditional supercomputers, researchers are going to look at inexpensively configured clusters for their work.