UMass supercomputer studying black holes, cybersecurity

A low-cost supercomputer is being used to study black holes and cybersecurity at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where it was built using 176 Sony PlayStation 3 gaming consoles stored in a refrigerated shipping container. More

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UMass supercomputer studying black holes, cybersecurity

COURTESY GAURAV KHANNA
THE PLAYSTATION 3 Console Supercomputer located on main UMass Dartmouth campus
Posted 6/23/14

A low-cost supercomputer is being used to study black holes and cybersecurity at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where it was built using 176 Sony PlayStation 3 gaming consoles stored in a refrigerated shipping container.

Built by UMass Dartmouth associate professor Guarav Khanna, who pioneered the concept in 2007, the super computer is being used at the university’s Center for Scientific Computing and Visualization Research to perform calculations for black hole astrophysics and explore vulnerabilities in cyber security.

The cluster is installed in a shipping container on campus that is big enough and has enough cooling capacity to support it. The system draws on energy from a nearby building, and its performance is comparable to nearly 3,000 processor cores of a typical lap top or desktop computer.

Most of the research projects under way using the PlayStation “cluster” are funded by the National Science Foundation.

“High-performance computing or supercomputing by linking together a large number of computer processors in order to build a large parallel computer cluster is currently the most common approach towards solving complex computational research problems in nearly all areas of science and engineering,” said Khanna, who is also associate director of the center.

“The largest supercomputers on the planet today that achieve petascale performance – several thousand trillion calculations in one second – have all been built using such a parallel cluster approach,” he said.

Khanna introduced the idea of using consumer gaming hardware to build low-cost supercomputers seven years ago when he built a cluster of eight Play Station 3 consoles and performed research quality simulations of black hole systems with it.

In 2010, the Air Force Research Lab in Rome, N.Y., used the same approach with a cluster of 1,717 consoles, demonstrating a tenfold cost effectiveness of such a system over traditional supercomputers, the university said. The lab has granted a portion of their cluster to the center.

The total cost for this supercomputer was about $75,000, said UMass Dartmouth Public Affairs Specialist Joseph Sullivan, compared with the cost for traditional supercomputers, which can range up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. About $50,000 from the Air Force Research Lab covered the cost of the consoles, networking gear and other equipment, while the university paid for the shipping container, Sullivan said.

Khanna added that a comparable system using “traditional” parts would cost 10 times more. The reasons include the lower cost of consumer gaming parts, which are powerful but are cheaper than specialized supercomputer parts, and the value of using a shipping container instead of a specialized IT data center, he said.

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