Playstation3 and Distributed Computing
A look into the future?
It comes as no surprise that in the atmosphere of the intensifying console wars some impressive battles will be fought. Favourite weapon amongst the rival companies has been the press release, volleyed off from the corporate marketing departments with a whistle and a shriek. The multiple-warheads of talking up their own machines prowess and rubbishing the abilities of their enemy’s are guided into web news articles and blasted out at various conferences and gatherings. Sony has recently made known a new approach to the way to do battle with the unveiling of the Absolute Fantasy Device, MK2-A. While giving a talk to the Games Developers Conference Shin'ichi Okamoto, the chief technical officer and senior vice president for Sony Computer Entertainment, unveiled that their current research efforts in developing the Playstation are centred around the idea of distributed computing. Responding to game developers clamouring for more power in the next incarnation of the machine, 1000 times more power, Mr. Okamoto is directing his team to look at ways to deliver that sort of massive power increase within the development cycle of the machine. As there is no possibility of waiting for processor speeds to slowly inch their way towards that level they have hit upon the idea of linking together each of the future consoles so they can share processing power and data. The concept of distributed power has become more familiar to the average PC user through programs like SETI@home and Intel-United Devices Cancer Research Project which have utilised the idle time of a persons computer to crunch through numbers, allowing each project access to far more total processing power than if they had an army of Metal Mickies. How much the relatively techno-phobic console user base will make of this admittedly brave concept is anyone’s guess, but to this somewhat technically-literate gamer it seems wildly optimistic and downright illogical. I mean for one, the very notion of a games machine relying on a permanent internet connection to be able to provide enough power to a game for it to run properly cries out in a fit of over confidence and needs to be countered by a shout of “What decade are you living in?” Not one console has been successfully linked to a network, purpose built or not. (You can play HALO over gamespy but that’s a hack) There is no national network dedicated to entertainment purposes. Only PC gamers have any experience of networked play. If you’re reading this then you most probably have been dropped from a server, got burnt by lag spikes and generally frustrated with the attitudes of your fellow gamer. Now imagine if you decided to buy the next Playstation and had to rely on the kind of rude, selfish, stupid and just plain assholic folk that make up way to much of the online gaming community to leave their shiny new Playstation on all day long for you. Just so it would work properly. And then you had to rely on their connection and yours being of sufficient quality that it could reliably pass data back and forth just so your machine knew what it was meant to be doing. But before all that Sony would have to come up with some markedly new ways of handling graphics instructions, both in the hardware itself and the methods the software would employ to utilise the hardware. And this is the thing about the distributed computing idea that I can’t make any sense of. Your current ADSL / Cable connection has a transfer rate of *guess* one megabit per second on average. The PS2 has a memory bandwidth of 3.2 gigabytes per second. Memory is the largest bottleneck in a graphics processor, so the more data that can be sent across the bus between the memory and the graphics chip the better your graphics are going to look. Roughly. The thing is we have a very large discrepancy here and if the PS-AFD were to try to use remote consoles to provide extra graphical oomph surely the extra work you could call in from outside would be like Pritt-stick to a glue sniffer. Even against the fastest net connections out there the PS2 can shift over twice as much data per second. And you’re going have a real big problem if you happen to live somewhere other than in a city. So what on earth can Sony be thinking? They could be contemplating using the processing and connectivity of all these Playstations as a resource which they can market to other companies. Maybe they are developing the distributed computing idea more as a way of improving multiplayer performance and setup. Maybe even they really are serious about the goal of implementing distributed computing in the PS-AFD. In May they plan to release a PS2-Linux kit which will include a network interface and a 40GB hard-drive. While not intended for anybody it is aimed at your ravaging Linux computing nut and can be seen as an attempt to start working out the practicalities and possibilities of working on such system architecture right now. Hell, these guys are pushing envelopes and being handsomely paid for the work they do whereas I’m not. It is very unlikely this is a joke or is doomed to resemble Leonardo’s helicopter – a grand idea in a time when it just plain could not be built. I have another notion of what is going on here and is more cynical then the others. “One thousand times the Power ! ! !” and “Distributed computing on a Playstation” are great phrases bound to attract the attention of anyone with an interest in gaming. And if that interest can be aligned with Sony and the Playstation, well that’s worth a lot of money. While there is undoubtedly some serious work going on over at Sony’s research labs I sense the work of marketing bods trying to strike a blow against the competition, making noise about the magic being done by Sony. Mr Okamoto has been credited with saying that, “Maybe the Playstation 6 or 7 will be based on biotechnology”, which sure sounds cool as hell, if a little bizarre. It would be nice to see gamers being properly integrated with each other across the world and is something that will no doubt arrive one day in some form or another. Whether we will interface that world on Sony, Microsoft or Fisher-Price’s terms we will have to let the future decide.