Government funding for research is becoming increasingly difficult to come by due to ongoing global economic instability, which is why many scientists are forced to look elsewhere to keep their research projects alive. Some are turning to crowdfunding, which is now allowing the UK to explore the moon, whereas others are practicing being thrifty. Dr. Gaurav Khanna is a perfect example of the latter, as he has managed to make an extremely cheap supercomputer using PlayStation 3 (PS3) games consoles. And he has even successfully used his ingenious invention to publish several scientific papers.
Khanna, a black hole physicist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, began his budget supercomputer endeavor back in 2007. His research focuses on gravitational waves, which are ripples in the fabric of space-time produced by moving masses like stars or black holes, usually when two or more compact masses interact in a violent manner, such as colliding together.
Gravitational waves decrease in strength as they move away from the source, meaning that by the time they reach Earth they are extremely weak, which is why scientists have struggled to detect them. But rather than developing instruments to pick up these waves, Khanna uses supercomputers to simulate black hole collisions.
Supercomputers are useful tools because they can crunch massive numbers and solve calculations that are too big for a single processor. As Khanna explains to New York Times, supercomputers perform at least 10 times better than single desktop computers, but they are extremely expensive to build. Normally, supercomputers are constructed by linking together a large number of processors, such as standard computers. However, Khanna decided to use PS3s rather than desktops to build his model, partly because of their low cost (around $250), and partly because users can install their preferred operating system.
Khanna contacted Sony for help with his endeavour, who gladly donated four consoles. His university funded another 8, and he bought the remaining four he needed with his own money. He then installed Linux on all of them, hooked them up and connected them to the Internet. And voila- a budget supercomputer was born.
Two years on, he was able to show in a published paper that his invention could speed up calculations by a factor of almost 10 compared to a traditional desktop computer. That same year, he published a paper detailing the behavior of gravitational waves arising from rotating black holes, which was made possible by his new toy.
Khanna was then approached by the Air Force Research Laboratory whose researchers had already been looking into using PS3s to help them out with urban surveillance projects. The lab donated 176 consoles to Khanna, resulting in a supercomputer as powerful as 3,000 laptops. What’s more, the remarkable machine came with a $75,000 price tag; a fraction of the cost of a traditional supercomputer. And it’s already helped Khanna publish two more scientific papers on black hole collisions. But his supercomputing journey isn’t over yet, as he is due another 220 consoles this year.
Unfortunately, these PS3 supercomputers will always be limited in terms of memory, which is significantly smaller than traditionally built machines. That’s why Khanna is now looking at using PC graphics cards, which are much more powerful than PS3s but still an inexpensive option.