A few days ago I came across a request for proposals issued by the US Air Force Materiel Command to purchase 2,200 Sony Playstation 3 (PS3).
For how surprising this may look like, the justification is indeed very clear. The Air Force is interested in expanding an earlier pilot where it has been using 300 PS3 to experiment a high performance computing architecture based on the Cell Broadband Engine Architecture, which powers the PS3. This research aims at determining what software and hardware technologies will be implemented in military systems.
As described in the justification review document attached to the RFP,
With respect to cell processors, a single 1U server configured with two 3.2GHz cell processors can cost up to $8K while two Sony PS3s cost approximately $600. Though a single 3.2 GHz cell processor can deliver over 200 GFLOPS, whereas the Sony PS3 configuration delivers approximately 150 GFLOPS, the approximately tenfold cost difference per GFLOP makes the Sony PS3 the only viable technology for HPC applications.
The document provides further justification about why the Air Force is using PS3 technology, but the one above is quite compelling.
This is a pristine example of how consumer technology can be used in pretty demanding government contexts – although still in an R&D rather than operational capacity. It should make reflect many of those who are still dismissive about the commoditization of government technology (such as the use of consumer social software and cloud computing).