HELIOS Helps Turn the PlayStation 3 (PS3) Into a Linux Server

Using Yellow Dog Linux, HELIOS has turned the PS3 into a low-cost Linux server

PS3 Console
PS3 Console. © SCEA

In 2010, Sony released a patch for the PlayStation 3 firmware that prevents Linux and other operating systems from running on the console. This article is for historical reference.

HELIOS has made it possible to use your PS3 as a server capable of harnessing the console's powerful Cell processor. With a little effort, your PlayStation 3 can not only run games and movies in HD but also act as a commercially viable Linux server.

Why Use Your PS3 as a Server?

HELIOS built the PS3 port to deliver a cheaper alternative to standard server solutions. According to HELIOS:

It is of course more usual to have the enterprise software running on much more expensive platforms, such as IBM blade servers or Apple Xserves. But the PS3 is capable of lighter duties, and will be used by the HELIOS sales team to demonstrate the software to customers. With fully loaded servers running into multiple thousands of pounds, a compact demonstration server for under £500 makes perfect sense.

The HELIOS bundle included on the demo disc image will only run for four hours at a time, allowing users to see what it can do and decide if a purchase is worth it or not. Dr. John Yardley, MD of HELIOS distributor JPY Plc, says:

It might seem like a crazy idea, but pound for pound the PS3 offers amazing power. I expect plenty of Linux enthusiasts will find good uses for the installation, which includes powerful tools like EtherShare and WebShare. Getting HELIOS running on the platform is akin to cramming a Spitfire engine into a Mini!

The free installer is available from the UK distributor's website. It uses Yellow Dog Linux v5.0 as its operating system. It also includes a demo version of HELIOS UB, an enterprise client-server application. HELIOS claims that this marks the first time a game console has been used for a business server solution. This is not, however, the first time someone has realized that the PS3 delivers more bang for your buck than current-gen PCs do. For example, Dr. Frank Mueller built a supercomputing cluster capable of high-performance computing using eight retail PS3s.

How Can the PS3 Run Linux?

The Linux installer is customized to make the best use of the limited memory available in the PS3. According to HELIOS, the disk image installs Yellow Dog Linux in under 10 minutes, with a configuration designed to offer 40% more memory than the standard config.

When HELIOS saw the PS3's tech specs, they knew turning it into a server was not beyond reach. The PS3 uses a 64-bit Cell processor that runs at 3.2 GHz, is PowerPC compatible with 256 MB of main memory, and has performance comparable to a G5 single CPU. The PS3 comes with the NVIDIA RSX Graphics Processing Unit, has a 60 GB 2.5" swappable serial ATA disk, and it offers both WLAN and Gigabit Ethernet for network connectivity. Terra Soft's Yellow Dog Linux v5.0 is binary compatible with its release for the former Apple PowerPC product line and concurrent support for the Mercury Cell products and IBM Cell and pSeries servers.

That said, applications like these put Sony in a very difficult place. There is no denying that every time a novel use for the PS3 is announced it not only generates good press but also proves that the PS3 is an incredibly powerful machine. However, the PS3 itself is a loss leader, meaning Sony loses money on each PS3 sold. It makes up that loss with games, which are very profitable for the company. So, when someone buys a PS3 and uses it as a dedicated server, or any other use that does not include the purchase of PS3 games or Blu-ray movies, Sony never recoups their investment. 

HELIOS PS3 Linux Installation Features

HELIOS claims the advantages of its PS3 Linux installation include:

  • Free download
  • Quick and easy installation
  • Excellent Linux on PS3 documentation
  • Dedicated server operating system with optimized performance (40% more memory available)
  • Java 1.5 runtime pre-installed
  • Easy maintenance shell from CD
  • HELIOS services pre-installed as a test drive