Studying Black Holes Using a PlayStation 3

Article written: 26 Dec , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

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If you’re a PlayStation 3 fan, or if you just received one as a holiday gift, you may be able to do more with the system than just gaming. A group of gravity researchers have configured 16 PlayStation 3’s together to create a type of supercomputer that is helping them estimate properties of the gravitational waves produced by the merger of two black holes. The research team from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, calls their configuration the Gravity Grid, and they say the Sony PlayStation 3 has a number of unique features that make it particularly suited for scientific computation. Equally important, the raw computing power per dollar provided by the PS3 is significantly higher than anything else on the market today.

PlayStation 3s have also been used by the [email protected] project, to harness the PS3’s technology to help study how proteins are formed in the human body and how they sometimes form incorrectly. This helps in research in several diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis, and even Mad-Cow disease.

Front view of the cluster of PS3's. Credit:  GravityGrid

Front view of the cluster of PS3's. Credit: GravityGrid


The PS3 uses a powerful new processor called the Cell Broadband Engine to run its highly realistic games, and can connect to the Internet so gamers can download new programs and take each other on.

The PlayStation 3 cluster used by the gravity research team can solve some astrophysical problems, such as ones involving many calculations but low memory usage, equaling the speed of a rented super-computer.
“If we had rented computing time from a supercomputer center it would have cost us about $5,000 to run our [black hole] simulation one time. For this project we ran our simulation several dozens of times to test different parameters and circumstances,” study author Lior Burko told Inside Science News Service.

One of the unique features of the PS3 is that it is an open platform, where different system software can be run on it. It’s special processor has a main CPU (called the PPU) and six special compute engines (called SPUs) available for raw computation. Moreover, each SPU performs vector operations, which implies that they can compute on multiple data, in a single step.

But the low cost is especially attractive to university researchers. The Gravity Grid team received a partial donation from Sony, and are using “stock” PS3s for the cluster, with no hardware modifications and are networked together using inexpensive equipment.

Gravitational waves are “ripples” in space-time that travel at the speed of light. These were theoretically predicted by Einstein’s general relativity, but have never been directly observed. Other research is being done in this area by the newly constructed NSF LIGO laboratory and various other such observatories in Europe and Asia. The ESA and NASA also have a mission planned in the near future – the LISA mission – that will also be attempting to detect these waves. To learn more about these waves and the recent attempts to observe them, please visit the LISA mission website.

More information on the PS3 Gravity Grid.

Sources: USA Today, Gravity Grid


25 Responses

  1. reevesAstronomy says

    Is sixteen the limit for linked systems or can they increase that number further?

    “the raw computing power per dollar provided by the PS3 is significantly higher than anything else on the market today.” If this is true and they can link more than 16 than I can see research facilities buying these things like mad. And planetariums too.

  2. hatrox says

    Wow, finally they’ve put the PS3’s to good use. 😛

  3. Hmmm, if PS3 comes out with black hole simulators and physics simulation devices in general then I might buy one, but no way am I going to afford 16 of them.

  4. LLDiaz says

    For now Xbox but in the future PS3..
    The gaming is too alike for me to dish 500 right now!
    But maybe there games will get better with time!

  5. Hunnter says

    @reevesAstronomy:
    Well not really, this was all they really need to run the simulations at decent speeds.
    Not sure exactly why those decided on 16 though.

    But there is no real physical limit, outside of human knowledge in managing networks.
    If its not much knowledge, then generally, 255 would be the max, 0–255 being the last section of the IP for the machines.

    I remember hearing about this a little while back, glad they got it up and running now.
    Should be interesting what kind of things they could simulate with it.
    I wonder if they could simulate the solar system in real time to a detail of 1KM, that would be fantastic for something like Spore. (shame Spore isn’t as up to scratch as it was a year before release… )

  6. Ron says

    Wow I have a PS3!! First they solve cancer with [email protected] and now this! Amazing!

  7. Marco says

    Scientists frequently do some brilliant work in their respective fields. Their work is often a wonder to behold. However, sometimes the process of the discovery is as brilliant as the discoveries. Using video games consoles to solve a problem as deep as black holes (pun unintended) is ingenious. I am always amazed at human creativity. Fun time to be alive. Now, if we can find a way to ride a Wii to orbit we will be just fine.

  8. Jeff says

    I’ve heard about linked PS3s together to create a relatively cheap supercomputer for complex calculations over a year ago, I guess it was about something else than the gravitational effects of black holes then.

    Also @ reevesAstronomy and Hunnter,

    Your idea about 255 is about as false as it gets, subnetting and IP addresses are not even related to this subjects, they are part of networking, not physically linking processors to get more calculation power.

    16 was probably chosen as the most cost effective to do the calculations in the amount of time they want to perform them in.

  9. Chris says

    I bet Sony is feeling a bit ambivalent about this.

    Since they’re losing money on every console sale and only profiting from game sales, they’re probably not looking forward to scientific studies buying up hundreds of PS3s and no games to go with them.

    Still, any publicity is good publicity, especially if it’s good publicity.

  10. bix says

    They chose 16 because of the switch used. Probably a d-link gigabit switch. Each switch generally runs several hundred dollars.

    Going with a second switch and more ps3 units was probably above the budget.

  11. ShadowDancer says

    Chris Says:
    December 26th, 2008 at 8:37 pm
    I bet Sony is feeling a bit ambivalent about this.

    Since they’re losing money on every console sale and only profiting from game sales, they’re probably not looking forward to scientific studies buying up hundreds of PS3s and no games to go with them.

    Still, any publicity is good publicity, especially if it’s good publicity.
    ~~~~~
    Reply to Chris:

    I would actually disagree that Sony is feeling a ambivalent about it since the article says that the researchers received a partial donation from Sony. Obviously it would be a write off for Sony and the positive publicity is an added bonus for them so they are making out on the deal.

  12. Member
    Dale says

    Since computer games exist, in large part, because of science in the first place, It seems fitting that the technology developed by the computer games industry is now
    contributing back to science.

    Congratulations to the scientists for their innovation and resourcefulness.

  13. There is only one small, indeed, tiny snag….. no one has yet been able to detect a single example of a gravity wave. Perhaps they look in the wrong place?

  14. Hunnter says

    @ Jeff
    But they made no hardware mods to any of the consoles.
    It is all network and software based.
    It even says on the site, in fact.
    “We are using ‘stock’ PS3s for this cluster, with no hardware modifications. They are networked together using an inexpensive netgear gigabit switch”

  15. Uclock says

    The idea of using gaming machines for computation is a good one but unfortunately gravitational waves do not exist as will become apparent when LISA is finally launched and no gravitational radiation is found.
    It is a shame all that money is going to be wasted trying to find something that does not exist.

  16. Hunnter says

    Uclock, tell that to the LHC staff and builders…
    All that money, and materials…

  17. Simmo says

    Hmm… looks like those 16 PS3’s are using about 18 rack units of space (including shelves). So you could fit 40 PS3’s in a 45RU cabinet. And I bet if they removed the plastic casing and just mounted the CCAs vertically they could probably fit 2 side by side, thus bringing the total to 80 in a single cabinet! Now that would be pretty powerful. Then perhaps they could overclock them as well???
    Mmmm… if only I had $40K for 80 playstations!

  18. trux says

    > The idea of using gaming machines for computation is a good one but unfortunately gravitational waves do not exist as will become apparent when LISA is finally launched and no gravitational radiation is found.

    If you know it with such certitude, why don’t you publish your proof? Unless you indeed have a theoretical proof about the non-existaence of gravitational waves (which I doubt), then if the computation serves nothing else than confirming your assumption, it is already of much bigger value for the science than a blind assumption.

  19. trux says

    I did some development for BOINC in the past too, and the amazing part of the system is that it uses idle machine time of computers that would be otherwise wasted. If now only one could persuade the PC and game station manufacturers to equip their hardware (or directly the OS’s) with the BOINC software, so that every computer (or a device equipped with a processor) on the globe could participate in some of the many scientific projects, the science and the mankind would profit from it immensly, practically without any extra cost.

  20. Frank Glover says

    Actually, this kind of application isn’t all that new. Eight years ago, before Saddam Hussein was deposed, there was a concern that Iraq was acquiring PlayStations to use in a similar manner to do nuclear weapon test simulations…

    http://www.wnd.com/index.php?pageId=7640

  21. Astrofiend says

    # Uclock Says:
    December 27th, 2008 at 5:25 am

    The idea of using gaming machines for computation is a good one but unfortunately gravitational waves do not exist as will become apparent when LISA is finally launched and no gravitational radiation is found.
    It is a shame all that money is going to be wasted trying to find something that does not exist.

    Wow – quite a bold assertion considering every single other aspect of General Relativity has been confirmed to the nth degree. Why do I find it hard to believe that some random guy posting on an internet forum has probably not figured out a superior theory to GR? Hmmm… Couple that with the fact that there is more and more indirect evidence emerging
    for the existence of gravitational waves that gels perfectly with Einstein’s theory, and I think it’s pretty clear cut.

    But like I always say – we’ll find out soon enough. And the odds of gravitational waves not being directly detected seem to be vanishingly low.

  22. knowmonger says

    Its so nice of those good people from Sony to give them donations (even though partial).

  23. James says

    The PS3’s are probably not entirely stock. They are most likely removing the built in operating system and replacing it with a cluster focused version of Linux.

  24. fatredfu says

    James, obviously you don’t own a PS3 or if you do, you haven’t read anything about it. I totally believe the claim that they have been networked, yet not modified other than to link them together. There is countless information on the web about adding different types of operating systems to the PS3. Including Windows.

  25. Sili says

    James,

    Since when is the operating system part of the hardware?

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