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Is the Air Force's Playstation 3 supercomputer program on its last life?

May 13, 2010 | 12:27 pm

Ps3A subtle change Sony made recently to its Playstation 3 video game console could eventually mean game over for a $663,000 government program.

Since last year, the Air Force has been harvesting computing power from the consumer game systems as a replacement for pricier rigs, as pointed out by the technology blog ArsTechnica.

No, Air Force pilots aren't using these systems to sit on cots and play video games during off hours.

Because Sony subsidizes the cost of the systems -- hoping to make up for the lost cash in royalties from game sales -- the gadgets actually provide more power for less money than most alternatives.

Presumably, the Air Force isn't buying thousands of copies of Grand Theft Auto.

The program started with the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., picking up 336 Playstation 3 systems and daisy-chaining them together to create a supercomputer. Considering the trial a success, the government contracted a small organization called Fixstars to provide an additional 1,700 top-of-the-line Sony game consoles.

Sony's original Playstation 3 systems have allowed users to modify the software by installing versions of the Linux computer operating system. The Air Force took advantage of this for its program. But the Japanese game manufacturer pulled that ability recently, citing "security concerns."

The update won't immediately affect the Air Force. The firmware version is only required in order to compete against other players online.

"The gaming and graphics market continues to push the state-of-the-art and lowers the cost of High Performance Computing," the Air Force Research Laboratory told the ArsTechnica blog.

But new Playstation 3 consoles will begin shipping with the updated software. So if the Air Force plans to add another batch of systems to its stockpile, it could have trouble finding ones that allow the modifications.

-- Mark Milian
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Photo: Associated Press

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