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
By Dave Tobin / The Post-Standard
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.
View 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 needed.
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 — 1,700.
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.
View 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 airplane.
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 bulb.
“In a couple of years, this will fade away,” he said.
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