Sony may launch PlayGrid

Sony is considering tying together gamers’ PlayStation 3 consoles into a global supercomputing grid that could be used for commercial applications, reports the Financial Times today. Sony has already teamed up with Stanford in the nonprofit Folding@Home initiative, in which PS3 users donate the spare cycles of their machines to analyze protein cells. Some 12,000 people have signed up for Folding@Home.

The PS3s run on IBM’s powerful new Cell processor. According to the FT, a grid of 10,000 PS3s provides as much computing muscle as a grid of 200,000 personal computers. Sony’s chief technology officer, Masa Chatani, says that the company has already received inquiries from companies regarding using what I’ll call the PlayGrid for intensive computing jobs: “For example, a startup or a pharmaceutical company that lacks a supercomputer could utilize this kind of infrastructure. We are discussing various options with companies and exploring commercial applications.” Sony would likely offer PS3 owners some kind of incentive, such as product discounts, to get them to allow companies to borrow their machines when they’re not using them.

Another example of the creative ways in which the internet itself can be used as a computing platform, the Sony PlayGrid would provide businesses with another option for fulfilling their high-powered computing needs – needs that server makers like Sun and Dell are hoping to fulfill with trailer computers, custom racks, and other sophisticated machinery. It also testifies to the vast inventory of unused computing cycles in the world today.

I wonder what the power-consumption implications of the PlayGrid would be. To be part of a grid, a person would have to leave his PS3 on all the time. How much electricity would such a setup use, in comparison to other supercomputing alternatives? (It may not matter, commercially, since the costs would be “hidden” in thousands of residential electric bills, but it’s still worth asking.)