What does the supercomputer used by the US military to run satellites look like? Well, until not too long ago it was a stack of 2000 PS3s

When we talk about supervisors, the most normal thing is that we think of a kind of machine that seems taken from the most twisted work of science fiction. As if they were incomprehensible equipment created for hidden tasks beyond our comprehension, the popular idea of ​​what a supercomputer is maybe not the most accurate. It’s not just one computer like the one you have in your room, but a million times more powerful, you can’t play Doom Eternal in 32k resolution at 500 FPS on one of them.

But how would we then define a supercomputer? Supercomputers are very powerful sets of computers put together, using many processors and graphics processing units to perform the complex tasks ahead of us. And it is that, although its name could deceive us and make us think that they look like our beloved PCs, the reality could not be more different. To start the type of tasks they perform is completely different from what we are used to, with the aim of performing operations that normal computers only do they can’t realize.

counting on specific architectures and hardware, they are created to perform millions of calculations per second, which is especially useful in the field of artificial intelligence, cloud computing, data analysis and even medicine. To give a recent example, the ability to analyze and simulate data was one of the reasons we were able to get a Coronavirus vaccine in record time.

Another very big difference comes in relation to its software. We’re not going to see supercomputers with Windows 10 or 11, but today a lot of those computers use Linux as their operating system. Of course, this does not mean that they are similar to each other. As Linux is an open source operating system, everyone has a single broadcast of the operating system that perfectly meets your needs, each supercomputer is different and tuned in a very, very specific way.

Condor Cluster, a unique and very, very cheap team

With all that in mind, and now that we know these types of terminals are unique, it’s time to look back and talk about one of the most curious I can remember. A little over a decade ago, one of these devices became very famous in the world of gamers, and it came out of the hands of the US Air Force. Put together over 1,700 PlayStation 3s It sounds crazy, but it was also real and managed to enter the pantheon of supercomputers, being the 33rd most powerful in the world.

Why create such a vital team using hundreds of PlayStations?

The Condor Cluster, as the collection of 1,760 game consoles was called sonybecame the supercomputer the strongest american army, and its purpose was very important. Crucial tasks are entrusted to him, such as the improvement of the air force radar systems, the processing of satellite images and the participation in the research and development of artificial intelligence. It was a very ambitious project that managed to solve up to 500 billion calculations per second, which is all the more surprising since it was formed by video game consoles. Why create such a vital team using hundreds of PlayStations?

Technology comparable to the PS3 in its ability to process high-resolution images could cost around $10,000 at the time, which was ridiculous compared to the $400-500 demanded for a PlayStation. In the end, what mattered was that these devices could be used to process high-resolution images and they were very very cheap. As if that weren’t enough, its power consumption was about 90% lower than the alternatives.

cluster of condors

It was the Condor Cluster.

“The total price of the Condor system was approximately $2 million, making it between 10 and 20 times cheaper only an alternative with equivalent capabilities,” said Mark Barnell, director of the Advanced Computing Division of the Air Force Development Laboratory. at the CNET portal in 2010.

End and legacy of a unique project

Of course, the PS3 also had a trick up its sleeve which, unfortunately, also caused the end of the project. Early PlayStation 3 models had the ability to run linuxone of the best open source operating systems, thanks to OtherOS. This ability disappeared from consoles in 2010 (citing security concerns) and was the trigger for the end of the Condor cluster. While it was true that the machines were not connected to PlayStation Network and could not receive the update that would remove OtherOS, there was a very serious problem: if a PS3 was damaged, the Armed Forces could not get another one that had the Linux feature enabled. .

Unfortunately, the life of the project was not very long

As for the use made of it, there is very little information about it. We know you can read up to 20 pages per second and process all the text, even if it was missing up to 30% of it, but also its lifespan was not very long. Advances in the creation of this type of equipment and the movements of Sony have shortened the useful life of one of the most curious projects ever created.

Despite such a disappointing ending, the Condor Cluster has survived over time as one of the great curiosities surrounding the world of video games. After all, it’s not always said that the machine we played Uncharted with was used for military purposes. A few years after all this, Sony itself saw an opportunity to pay tribute to the project in a very curious way. In the film Chappie, released in 2015 and directed by Neill Blomkamp, ​​we could see a curious set of playstation4 interconnected which referred to the Condor Cluster.

supercomputing today

Today’s supercomputers have evolved to have exponentially more powerful computational speeds. If with the Cluster Condor we were talking about capacities to carry out operations of 500 teraflops, today the most powerful equipment in the world (I talked about last month), can reach a whopping 1,685,650 teraflops (or what amounts to the same, 1,685.65 petaflops), being 3 times more powerful than its predecessor and being the first terminal that breaks the exascale barrier.


In the end, all these astronomical figures show only one thing: this type of system, although called computers, is very, very far from what we call by the same name. A supercomputer will not give you better results for playing your favorite titles, editing videos or a 3D model, but it is made for very specific tasks which are far from our idea of ​​computing. Advancing at such a rapid pace, this technology is undoubtedly key to our future, albeit in ways we are unaware of.

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