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Sony’s Linux lock-out on PS3 brings three lawsuits, riles Air Force

May 13, 2010 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 33 views

Sony's removal of the Playstation 3's “Other OS” option will cause higher support costs for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and other research institutes using arrays of PS3s for high-performance computing, says ArsTechnica. Meanwhile, three lawsuits have been brought against Sony over the offending PS3 update, says IGN.

According to an ArsTechnica article by Nate Anderson, several research institutes, including the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, New York, have "suffered collateral damage" due to Sony's 3.21 firmware release and its impact on service and support. Any PS3 sent back to Sony for service will return with the 3.21 firmware update, thereby making it useless in the lab's cluster of Linux-driven PS3s, and it will be difficult to find replacement systems that lack the update, says the story. 

Sony Computer Entertainment America continues to hold tough with its controversial decision to release a 3.21 firmware update for the PlayStation 3 (PS3) gaming box that disables the Other OS feature. Sony's April 1 update prevents optional operating system (OS) installs on the gaming box, thereby jettisoning thousands of users who have for years run Linux on the box for desktop PC use, as well as a wide variety of embedded computing projects.

Users who don't update are blocked from signing into the PlayStation Network, and are barred from a variety of options, including "online features of PS3 games and chat." 

Sony likely calculates it can outlast the outcry from disgruntled Linux users, as well as survive hacker Geohot's yet-to-be-released CFW (custom firmware) hack, which hopes to reinstate the Other OS option. The three class-action lawsuits pose a larger hurdle, (see farther below), but Sony's legal team is likely up to the challenge.

The consumer electronics giant may have underestimated, however, the reach of Linux-imbued PS3s in research. Like other research institutes — including projects at the University of Massachusetts and North Carolina State — the Air Force was drawn to the PS3 not for after-hours recreation, but for the low-cost implementation of the console's Cell processors. In fact, PS3s have been used for high performance computing (HPC) clusters since as long ago as 2007.

Last year, the Air Force Research Laboratory purchased 336 PS3 systems to develop an experimental 53 teraFLOP processing cluster for research purposes, reports ArsTechnica. After determining that running such an array of PS3s was much more cost effective than any other solution, including using Cell-based systems from IBM or dual quad-core Intel Xeon servers, the Air Force signed a contract with Fixstars to furnish 1,700 160GB PS3 systems, says the story.

A 500 TeraFLOPS cluster 

Several months ago, the systems arrived, and were installed, with Xeon-base servers acting as subcluster headnodes that sit between the PS3 cluster and the control terminals, says ArsTechnica.

The PS3s turned out to provide a highly affordable platform for the lab's 500 TeraFLOPS Heterogeneous Cluster — until Sony pulled the rug out from underneath the Air Force with its April 1 surprise. It became clear that the lab had essentially bought into a mothballed platform, with all the legacy issues of how to support and replace unsupported machines, suggests the story.

"We will have to continue to use the systems we already have in hand," a lab spokesperson was said to have told ArsTechnica. "This will make it difficult to replace systems that break or fail. The refurbished PS3s also have the problem that when they come back from Sony, they … will not allow Other OS, which seems wrong. We are aware of class-action lawsuits against Sony for taking away this option on systems that used to have it."

Despite the support headache, the Air Force appears to believe that the Linux-on-PS3 platform will still offer more bang for the buck than other alternatives. "The gaming and graphics market continues to push the state of the art and lowers the cost of High Performance Computing, FLOPS/WATTS per dollar," the lab spokesperson told ArsTechnica.

The publication received no comment from Sony when it asked the company about how its firmware decision would affect scientific computing clusters.

Sony now faces three lawsuits over PS3 firmware

Three lawsuits have been filed against Sony Computer Entertainment America for disabling the PS3's Other OS feature, reports IGN, among other sites. One suit was filed on Apr. 30 by five individuals across the U.S., claiming that the plaintiffs "lost money by purchasing a PS3" because the product "was not what it was claimed to be," says IGN. The group is said to be seeking compensatory damages, restitution, and injunction relief. A somewhat similar lawsuit was filed on Apr. 28 by Anthony Ventura of California, says the story.

A third lawsuit was filed against Sony on May 5 by Todd Densmore of Cumming, Ga., and Antal Herz of San Francisco, Calif. The suit claimed that Sony failed to disclose to customers that it reserved the right to remove advertised, built-in features, says IGN. The suit also alleged that the right to remove Other OS was not disclosed in Sony's Terms of Service or System Software License Agreement, says the story.

According to Sony, the continued use of optional installations threatens security for PS3 users and offers the potential for violating copyright.


The ArsTechnica report on the impact of the Sony PS3 update on the Air Force Research Laboratory may be found here.

The IGN story on the lawsuits against Sony, complete with links to copies of the lawsuits, may be found here.

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