Eyes bug open when Mike Showerman tells kids he has 100 PlayStation 2s.
"They're like: 'Wow, what games do you have?' the researcher at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications said recently.
And that's when Showerman inevitably disappoints his young questioners.
"I don't have any games," he said.
Unless you count quantum chromodynamics, where you get to watch quarks and gluons interact, sans rocket launchers or magical swords.
If that doesn't sound like it has the best-seller potential of, say, Grand Theft Auto 2, particle physicists will probably love it. They're the biggest users of scientific supercomputing power nationwide and they take all the machine time they can get, NCSA's Rob Pennington said.
Showerman, NCSA research scientist Craig Steffen and colleagues have turned those 70 of those 100 PlayStation 2s into a supercomputer by wiring them together in a "cluster" that can, in theory, do about 400 billion calculations per second.
It's the same concept the UI-based center has employed in recent years in "clustering" hundreds of powerful, but pretty standard, personal computers, which work together to generate the supercomputing power for performing trillions of calculations in an eye blink.
But the fact that it's now been done with $199 game consoles - with toys - has attracted attention from New York to Kazakhstan since word of it began appearing on computer geek Web sites last month.
Steffen said the cluster proves the concept is possible on game consoles. Whether the Play Station 2 cluster can really be optimized for scientific computing like quantum chromodynamics calculations, and whether all the effort needed to get it there is really worth it, remains to be seen, he said.
PCs are about as cheap, and more powerful, given that the PlayStation 2 is nearly 3-year-old technology. They also are a lot easier to cluster.
On the other hand, the PlayStation 3 is on the horizon and it's likely to be a beast. Even on PCs, the most impressive advances in processing power, video cards for instance, are married to the huge demands of increasingly movielike game software.
"Gamers are driving the market, not science," said Pennington, NCSA's director of computing and data management. "The question is, can we leverage this growth as a result of the gamers?"
Pennington and Showerman, program manager for the cluster software and tools group, said the PlayStation 2 project also is an opportunity to advance the center's expertise in clustering by extending the technique to a new, and unusual, kind of hardware.
"It is in a real sense a grand experiment," Pennington said. "This isn't the only unique architecture that we've looked at in the last six months."
He said a need remains for the NCSA's classic custom-built, multimillion-dollar supercomputers, which simply handle some problems better.
But much of the new supercomputing capacity in the future is likely to come from clustering commodity machines, perhaps even some designed to play games.
As experiments go, it has been fairly cheap, too, especially for building a supercomputer. Showerman said they spent about $50,000, mostly for the machines (they bought them before PlayStation 2s dropped in price last year) and special modules that added a networking port and hard drive to the game consoles, and the ability to run a Sony-sanctioned version of the Linux operating system. The National Science Foundation partly funded the project.
The Linux kit opened the door to turning the PlayStation 2s into something other than game consoles. But the software tools to get them to work together, and to do anything scientifically useful, had to be created from scratch.
"It's not built to do what we're doing," Steffen said.
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