The announcement earlier this month for the new Playstation 3 (PS3) Slim model caused some consternation for Linux users, as it revealed that PS3-maker Sony would no longer support the "Install Other OS" feature that currently operates on existing PS3 machines.
I heard the news when I got back from vacation, and I was more than a little disappointed, since this is a big hit to low-cost supercomputing.
It's easy to assume that the only users affected by Sony's decision are the ever-present tinkerers who try (and typically succeed) to install Linux on every new device that comes out. Hence, Linux on iPhone and the like. It's a challenge that seems to range from ardent hobby to mild obsession.
In the case of the PS3, however, the benefits of Linux on the CellBE-processor device were immediate. In 2007, the researchers at North Carolina State University clustered eight PS3 machines that ran Fedora Core 5 Linux (ppc64). That same year a University of Massachusetts team found that putting together an eight-node PS3 cluster together (for a cost of about US$4000) would perform with the same processing power as a 200-processor supercomputer.
Sony explained their decision on the Playstation 2 developer forum, in a post that has since been removed:
"The reasons are simple: The PS3 Slim is a major cost reduction involving many changes to hardware components in the PS3 design. In order to offer the OtherOS install, SCE would need to continue to maintain the OtherOS hypervisor drivers for any significant hardware changes--this costs SCE. One of our key objectives with the new model is to pass on cost savings to the consumer with a lower retail price. Unfortunately in this case the cost of OtherOS install did not fit with the wider objective to offer a lower cost PS3."
Of course, I am sure there are other organizations who would be happy to step up and help maintain the hypervisor, especially Fixstar, makers of Yellow Dog Linux and sellers of pre-loaded Yellow Dog PS3 devices in single-, eight-, and 32-node clusters.
Unfortunately, the economics are far more complex. It's no secret that Sony loses money on every PS3 it sells, counting on game sales to make up for the loss in revenue. Academic institutions using PS3s for clusters aren't likely to buy copies of Batman: Arkham Asylum or tomorrow's release of Guitar Hero 5.
So, even if someone were to step up and take care of the hypervisor support issue, there's still the matter of making up for Sony's lost revenue per PS3 unit.
It has been confirmed that Sony has no plans to remove the "Install Other OS" feature on current PS3 models, so there's no immediate danger. It's only a matter of time for obsolesce to creep in as existing PS3s fade out while PS3 Slims pervade. Hopefully, all those tinkerers out there will figure out a way to run Linux on these new PS3s, so low-cost supercomputing can continue unabated.