The Condor Cluster

I’m fascinated by the Condor Cluster, a US Air Force supercomputer made from 1,760 PlayStation 3s.

PlayStation 3 cluster

I mean, just the cluster itself is pretty cool. Used for image analysis, it cut processing time from several hours to just seconds. But why did they use PS3s?

Two big reasons: the PS3 could run Linux, and it was WAY cheaper than similar hardware. Apparently a $400 PS3 performed equivalently to $10,000 of comparable hardware. The PS3s performed well because… well, graphics processing was kind of their jam. That’s not surprising.

But why were they so much cheaper than other available hardware? I can’t tell you why it would have cost $10,000 to buy similar equipment, but it definitely cost more than $400 to build a PS3. What many people don’t know is that modern gaming consoles actually sell at a loss. Manufacturers are willing to lose money on their hardware, because the big money comes from selling games.

So then here’s a subtly interesting aspect to the Condor Cluster: Sony probably lost money from it. They sold 1,760 consoles at a loss, and never earned a cent in game purchases for those consoles. Though apparently the Air Force worked directly with Sony to procure all those PS3s. “It wasn’t something as simple as going to Best Buy or Wal-Mart,” according to the director of the lab. So maybe Sony thought it was worth it for the publicity? Or just didn’t want to say no to the Air Force?

Anyway, in a time where it’s a Herculean task to get ahold of a single current-gen console, I think it’s awesome to imagine a time where someone decided the best way to parse a JPG was to cluster together a crap-ton of video game consoles.