Technology is Neat: Clustering Consoles Edition

As a lady in the computer sciences world who still operates mostly in academia, I actually don’t encounter a lot of people who assume I don’t know how to computer. This makes it particularly annoying when I DO encounter such people, though, so when I had someone try to tell me that the reason the Air Force had made a cluster out of PS3s back in 2009 was because the PS3’s CPU “does math”.

For those of you who aren’t computer people, the CPU in your microwave does math.

Trying to tell a PhD student in computer sciences (who has, by the by, taught introduction to systems) that it’s particularly remarkable that a CPU does math is roughly one of the most professionally insulting things I’ve experienced so far, and I got ragey. But Iam interested in the whole “why are consoles good for clustering” thing, so I dug around yesterday to see if my initial suspicions (specialized instructions and a predilection for networking) had any merit. Put on your learnin’ hats and follow me over the jump, kids, it’s time for some tech talk!

6 thoughts on “Technology is Neat: Clustering Consoles Edition

  1. Nowadays just about every full scale computer has a similar architecture. There are usually several PPEs and there is an array of SPEs, usually referred to as the “graphics card”. Even the hobbyist computers are moving towards this model. I recently built a lamp using an Arduino Yun which is just a hobbyist oriented external circuit friendly Arduino hooked up to a tiny little Linux box like the one in Barbie’s dream house, circa 1992. My guess is that in a few years, this is how they’ll put processors in light bulbs and paper clips.
    The reason they were good for clustering is that the SPEs were in charge of getting along with the neighbors so that the PPEs could do some real work. Sometimes I wish they had that model at the office.

  2. For a bit more history, just before this processor came out, there was the AIM band, Apple, IBM and Motorola which sang the praises of the RISC approach vs the CISC approach. Apple released their Macs using the G3, G4, and G5 chips, Motorola released a lot of G3 and G4 embedded systems and IBM pushed higher end G5s into their big iron server products.
    Alas, this did not last, toward the end, Motorola was just phoning it in and never made the group meetings, IBM did not think the market was big enough for low power systems and Sony had this nice idea about cell processors. Some folks thought it would be good in Macs, but instead Apple split the band up and went with Intel. And as you say, STI was born.

  3. @Kaleberg – I’m aware, but these are all local to one chip, which does actually cut down on the communication time. When you have to communicate through an external bus, the physical distance slows things down. Microscopically, sure, but when you’re modeling the universe even tiny efficiency hits become a factor.

  4. I thought Sony did a required update to the PS3 that prevented users from installing an alternative OS that could be used for clustering?

  5. @racymind – they did. The PS3 clusters running linux aren’t hooked up to the network that pushed the updates, though, so they avoided it. It’ll only become a problem when they have to replace their machines in the future (or for anyone who wants to try doing this now).

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