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Sony Studies Commercial PlayStation 3 Supercomputing Grid

Sony is mulling over the idea of offering product discounts and other incentives to entice PlayStation 3 users into forming a supercomputing grid that could be leased to businesses.

Companies, particularly in the medical industry, have approached Sony with the idea after reading about PlayStation 3 owners participation in the nonprofit Folding@home, a Stanford University project that uses home computers to form a supercomputing grid for biomedical research. The project is focused on understanding the causes of cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other deadly diseases.

For supercomputing, PS3s are the creme de la crme because they pack so much more processing power than the average PC -- 30 times more, according to Sony. The reason is they use IBM's powerful Cell processor.

On Wednesday, for example, 20,000 of the 200,000 PS3 users who have signed up for the Folding@home project were online, delivering a combined processing speed of 267 teraflops, Dave Karraker, spokesman for Sony Computer Entertainment America, told InformationWeek. By comparison, the 200,000 PCs online were producing a combined speed of 240 teraflops. A teraflop is a trillion mathematically computations, called floating-point operations, per second.

With an estimated 6 million PlayStation 3s sold, it's little wonder that pharmaceutical companies, medical startups, and other businesses would be hot to chat with Sony about building a supercomputing grid that they could tap into. Like the Folding@home project, all that would be needed in terms of technology would be a Sony-distributed piece of software that PS3 owners could download.

However, to make the grid commercially successful, Sony would have to pay customers to keep their machines running all the time in order to make them accessible when not in use. "It's something we could absolutely do in terms of the technology," Karraker said. "It's whether the consumer can be incentivized to let someone else utilize the computer power of their PS3."

Unlike Folding@home, this would be a commercial venture, so there's no appealing to customers' charitable side. As incentives, Sony is considering discounts on products, such as the PS3 and accessories. Sony would wrap this cost into the overall price it would charge to companies seeking to use the grid.

At this point, Sony is studying the idea -- first trying to determine how many PS3 owners would be willing to participate and at what cost. "It's all in the research phase, right now," Karraker said. "If consumers ultimately say they don't want this, then obviously we won't do it."

Nevertheless, Sony is serious about following through with the idea, if it's commercially feasible. In the meantime, PS3 owners interested in joining in will have to stay tuned.

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