A Use for Sony PS3s Even Parents Can Love

Carl Weinschenk

Good news, parents: There is a use of Sony PlayStation 3s that doesn't involve kids staring at a monitor for hours when they should be outside playing in the fresh air.

This PALGN story says that the Folding@home project run by Stanford University is linking idle PS3 consoles (we didn't know there ever were any) and other devices to amass the raw computing power necessary to determine how proteins fold. The research could determine if misfolding is a cause of Alzheimer's disease, cystic fibrosis, some forms of cancer and mad cow disease. Sony reportedly says PS3 participation is far ahead of expectations and an update to the software -- which initially was released last month -- soon will be available.

The project is reminiscent of search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) projects that seek to harness unused desktops to find extraterrestrial life. The story says about 250,000 PS3s are providing about 400 teraflops (floating point operations per second) to the project. Combined with other computer devices, the project has a number-crunching capacity of 700 teraflops.

Such projects are great examples of the latent power of modern communications. The point is simple: A truly awesome amount of computer power is scattered hither and yon. Harnessing it effectively can lead to extraordinarily exciting projects.

This isn't lost on industry. Digital Media Wire reports that Sony is interested in commercializing the type of distributed computing it is supporting in the Folding@home project. It is unclear from the story whether such an initiative would focus on PS3s themselves, the underlying software that enables the devices to work in concert, or both.

The idea is that an army of smaller computers could link to provide supercomputer-like processing power to help in pharmaceutical, energy exploration and other sectors that commonly deal with calculation-intensive problems. Indeed, the Unfolding@home and SETI projects are not that conceptually different from supercomputers. They both rely on parallel operations of thousands of processors and, therefore, are considered to be forms of distributed computing.

The other leg of modern communications -- the speed at which data travels -- also was in the news last week. This Endgadget story says two data transfer records were set within 24 hours of each other at the Internet2 Consortium's spring meeting. The first -- 7.67 Gbps -- was upended the next day when a speed of 9.08 Gbps was attained. The data had to travel 20,000 miles. The piece suggests that this record may endure, since there is a theoretical limit of 10 Gbps and a 10 percent increase in speed must be realized for a record to be officially broken.

The idea that transfer speeds are climbing in an era in which software designers are dreaming up ever-more efficient ways to link thousands of isolated pockets of processing is exciting. Futuristics have long discussed sophisticated computing-on-demand networks that would enable computer suppliers to mimic the electrical grid and make capacity available just about anywhere people want it. We may be seeing the first steps in the realization of that dream.

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