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1,760 PlayStation 3s form new supercomputer

Dec. 24, 2010 - 10:53AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 24, 2010 - 10:53AM  |  
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Putting 1,760 Sony PlayStation 3s in one room might make for the most awesome "Call of Duty: Black Ops" game ever. And, as Air Force researchers have discovered, they can also create the Defense Department's largest interactive supercomputer.

The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, formally unveiled the supercomputer, nicknamed the "Condor Cluster," earlier this month.

Not only is it fast — the laboratory's high performance computing director says it's about the 35th-fastest computer in the world — and "green," it was cheap, too. The laboratory spent about $2 million, which Wright-Patterson says is less than one-10th the cost of using traditional computer equipment.

"We're striving hard to make affordable and constrained systems, where they can really use them and make a difference," the director, Mark Barnell, told reporters Dec. 2.

The Condor Cluster will be used to process high-resolution satellite images and boost surveillance capabilities. According to the Air Force, scientists will be able to monitor a 15.5-mile area in real time using the cluster and aerial surveillance.

Researchers also want to use the supercomputer for neuromorphic computing, which mimics the human brain's ability to solve complex problems. The supercomputer has applications capable of reading 20 pages per second with up to 30 percent of the characters removed and recovering all the words without error, said Barnell, also the Condor Cluster project engineer.

"We have quite a few research and development efforts working on those kind of applications to do confabulation and prediction," Barnell said, "and that will open up a variety of areas which could help with a lot of other efforts and a lot of the areas in which the Air Force would like to go."

The Condor Cluster isn't just for Air Force Research Laboratory scientists. It is available for Defense Department users for free on a shared basis.

It's also energy efficient. The Condor supercomputer is about the seventh "greenest" computer in the world, Barnell said.

The Condor Cluster can achieve about 1.5 GigaFLOPS — floating point operations per second, the unit by which supercomputing power is measured — per watt of computing power. A typical supercomputer can reach only about one-15th of that.

Although building a "green" system was important, Barnell said a motivation behind building a power-efficient machine was to create something that could work well in the field.

"If we're going to help out and bring it out to … the war fighter, we also know that there's a size, weight and power constraint in the real world," Barnell said. "We see a direct relationship, and we're motivated and driven by those constraints as well.

"And when the two match up — not just because we get lucky, I think more because we know where we're going — then we get a double-win."

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