Supercheap Supercomputer

Illinois researchers make US $50 000 cluster from Sony Playstations and off-the-shelf software

2 min read

The same hardware that lets millions of gamers race cars or battle giants may soon allow physicists to probe the foundations of reality. Researchers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the computer science department at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign have created a cluster of Sony Playstation 2 game consoles [photo] for just US $50 0000, hijacking specialized graphics hardware for scientific supercomputing.

One of the researchers, Mike Showerman, explains why the Playstation 2 had caught their eye after Sony Corp. released a Linux kit for the console last year. ”We saw a potential at such a low cost that we decided that it was just something that we should be playing around with,” Showerman told IEEE Spectrum. With the kit, users can install the popular Linux open-source operating system, turning each console into a general-purpose, network-ready computer. So, the researchers used the kit to network the consoles together and, more importantly, get access to each Playstation’s sophisticated graphics hardware. This can process as many as 66 million polygons a second, which is what allows the Playstation to render realistic 3-D worlds so well. For mathematical reasons, each polygon vertex is represented as a vector, an array of numbers with four elements that represent positional information. At the heart of the Playstation’s graphics hardware is a pair of ”vector units”—dedicated arithmetic processors designed to operate on vectors.

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Why Functional Programming Should Be the Future of Software Development

It’s hard to learn, but your code will produce fewer nasty surprises

11 min read
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A plate of spaghetti made from code
Shira Inbar
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You’d expectthe longest and most costly phase in the lifecycle of a software product to be the initial development of the system, when all those great features are first imagined and then created. In fact, the hardest part comes later, during the maintenance phase. That’s when programmers pay the price for the shortcuts they took during development.

So why did they take shortcuts? Maybe they didn’t realize that they were cutting any corners. Only when their code was deployed and exercised by a lot of users did its hidden flaws come to light. And maybe the developers were rushed. Time-to-market pressures would almost guarantee that their software will contain more bugs than it would otherwise.

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