Supercomputers are expensive. Really expensive. PlayStation 3s, on the other hand, are relatively inexpensive, only around $250 or so.
That gave Dr. Guarv Khanna, a black hole physicist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in need of a supercomputer for his black hole simulations, an idea. Why not build a supercomputer out of PS3s? After all, a super computer is primarily a large number of processors all linked together in order to speed up advanced scientific calculations. What is a home video game console except for a computer without many of the bells and whistles?
"Gaming had grown into a huge market," Dr. Khanna tells the New York Times. "There's a huge push for performance, meaning you can buy low-cost, high-performance hardware very easily. I could go out and buy 100 PlayStation 3 consoles at my neighborhood Best Buy, if I wanted."
So Khanna did exactly that, albeit on a smaller scale. He reached out to Sony Computer Entertainment of America first, which donated four PS3s to the cause. Khanna's university paid for eight more, and Khanna himself bought another four for a total of 16. He linked them together, installed the Linux operating system on each console and then went to work, publishing two papers using the supercomputer in 2009.
His work caught the attention of the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., which had also been experimenting with using PS3s for supercomputers. In 2010 the lab built a supercomputer using 1,716 consoles of their own to conduct radar image processing. The lab reached a cooperative research-and-development agreement with Khanna, and then proceeded to donate 176 consoles for Khanna's work.
Khanna has gone on to publish two more papers on black hole collisions based on simulations made possible with the PS3 supercomputer, and another 220 consoles are on the way to make the computer even more powerful. All in all, Khanna says the supercomputer has the power of nearly 3,000 laptop or desktop processors, but only cost $75,000 to make, around a tenth of what a traditional supercomputer would cost.
Why PS3s, you may be asking? Why not the Xbox 360? Unlike most other game consoles, users can install their own operating systems on the PS3 hardware (like Linux). That, and the cheap cost, would prove crucial to making the PS3 supercomputer viable. If you have yet to upgrade from a PS3 to a PS4, maybe think twice about selling your old console or throwing it in a storage locker. You could donate it to science instead.