Sony's PS3 Drops Linux; Why You Should Care

When the PlayStation 3 launched in 2006, Sony touted Linux support as a reflection of their commitment to making the PS3 a true supercomputer.  In fact, prior to launch, Ken Katuragi expressed his desire to pre-install Linux on all PS3's.  Though mostly marketing hyperbole, the vision of making the PlayStation something bigger than just a gaming machine was part of the company culture that permeated Sony's PlayStation division during the last decade.

The PlayStation Heritage

During the peak of the original PlayStation era, Sony launched "Net Yaroze," a consumer development kit that allowed interested gamers to work on developing their own applications for the console.  In the PlayStation 2 era, Sony offered "Linux (for PlayStation 2)" a fully-fledged Linux distribution which included an X-Server supporting the PS2's Graphics Synthesizer and even some support through Mesa 3D.   Unlike the Net Yaroze, which required customized hardware and software, Linux for PlayStation 2 worked on the majority of retail PlayStation 2's.  The real challenge was finding a monitor that supported the PS2's Sync-on-Green signal.

By the time the PS3 was launched, Sony seemed to be on a progressive path of increasing support for the community of homebrew enthusiasts.  Net Yaroze opened up the idea, but required customized hardware and software.  Linux for PlayStation 2 allowed consumers to use retail consoles with a custom kit.  With the PS3, Sony promised something amazing: full Linux support available on all shipping units -- just burn a DVD and install.

The homebrew market for the PS3 never caught on the way it was supposed to.  Due to concern for piracy, Sony disabled support for the RSX GPU via a HyperVisor.  When combined with the difficult-to-program Cell Broadband Engine, the role for Linux on PS3 was limited as a gaming platform.  On the other hand, the Cell itself was a remarkable processor.  In 2006, the Cell offered 150 GFlops of single-precision computational performance.  A modern Core i7 975 only offers 111 GFlops of single precision performance.  For applications requiring single precision arithmetic, the PS3 offered an exceptional bargain.  In fact, it was Sony in early 2006 who approached Stanford to discuss porting Folding@Home to the PlayStation 3.

While Kutaragi was the most prominent proponent of homebrew development, he was not the only cheerleader.  The other prominent figure during the PlayStation Decade was Phil Harrison.

I first met Phil Harrison while still a student at Stanford, when he gave us a talk about the "Next Generation PlayStation."  In his career at Sony, Phil Harrison would push for Linux and continue to open up the homebrew capabilities of the PS3.  He would later play an instrumental role in supporting and promoting the homebrew nature of games such as "Little Big Planet," and after moving to Atari, he continued to be vocal about supporting the independent developer through tools such as the Unity Game Engine.

From the launch of the PlayStation 3 in 2006 through 2010, Sony incrementally added new features to the PS3.  Compared to the initial PS3 launch, Sony has improved CD Audio performance with Super Bit Mapping, added Video Chat, Folding@Home support, added videophile-grade video scaling and deinterlacing, 1080p24 Blu-Ray playback, upscaled PSOne support, BD-Live, an improved photo gallery, and full screen Adobe Flash support.  On queue is 3D stereoscopic support. Unfortunately, Sony has since removed support for SACD playback as well as PS2 backwards compatibility with newer revisions of the console.

Today's Sony

In the post-Kutaragi, post-Harrison PlayStation world it seems as if there are fewer opportunities for the visionaries at Sony.  The worldwide economic crisis has led companies to trim costs wherever possible.  The PS3's overly ambitious design, built during an era of seemingly unlimited economic growth, has resulted in a console that is still sold at a loss.  To tighten the belt, Sony is pulling back from this community service endeavors.

On March 28, 2010, Sony announced that they would be pulling support from Linux on the PlayStation 3.  This was due in part to Sony's HyperVisor being compromised, allowing hackers direct-to-kernel and device driver "ring 0" access.  By dropping support for Linux, Sony increases the difficulty of pirating downloading movies purchased or rented through the PlayStation Network.  Additionally, dropping "Other OS" support ensures that Sony no longer needs to maintain the HyperVisor drivers for each firmware and hardware revision of the PS3, ultimately delivering a cheaper and more profitable hardware platform. [Though famed iPhone hacker Geohot did pledge to try to retain the Other OS feature through custom firmware. -Ed]

Today, the PS3 is a potent gaming machine.  Games such as Final Fantasy XIII are finally bringing to reality the movie-quality graphics once promised by Sony.  For hardware that is almost 4 years old, this is an impressive achievement.   Likewise, Kutaragi's dream to make the PS3 the media hub of the home is becoming a reality.  The open source PS3 Media Server allows the PS3 to be an exceptional media streamer particularly in the context of the PS3’s exceptional video scaling and noise reduction capabilities.  Sony already offers HD PVR support for digital TV in Europe and Japan, and if Sony offered ATSC/CableCard support for US owners, I wouldn't need a HTPC.

Does it Matter?

The loss of Linux for the PlayStation 3 is less about running Linux on 4-year old hardware.  As powerful as the Cell CPU once was, the future of homebrew vector programming and high-performance scientific computing is going to be found in the world of the GPU and technologies such as NVIDIA Fermi, AMD Cypress, and Intel Larrabee. 

Instead, the loss of Linux represents the end of an era for PlayStation. Through all of the hyperbole that characterized the PlayStation world of the last decade, there was a desire and passion to build something grander than just a simple game machine.

We asked a Sony representative if there were plans to restore the "Other OS" feature once the security risk had been analyzed and patched.  The official reply: "At this point in time, we have no plans to bring back the feature to the system."

While Sony is pulling away from Linux and the community, we can't help but to think about the other end of the spectrum and a company that has fully supported the enthusiast community: id Software.

Rather than increasing restrictions over time, id has a great history of decreasing restrictions over time.  One good example is how they release the source code to their game engines via GPL after a reasonable amount of time.  If Sony were following id's model they would be opening up RSX support in a future version of PS3 Linux as opposed to pulling it away.

I sent a few quick questions to John Carmack, co-founder of id software, lead engineer of Armadillo Aerospace, Linux supporter, and an all-around good guy to get his thoughts on the situation.

Alan: Have you ever regretted GPL'ing a game engine and feeling as if you released it too early?  Also, will we see still Doom 3's engine released once the patented code is removed?

John: No, I have never regretted any GPL release.  Yes, I still hope to release the Doom 3 code sometime after Rage ships.

Alan: What's your thought on PS3 Linux story?  Is there even a role for scientific computing in a world of modern GPGPU's?

John: I never liked the Cell architecture.  You can get high peak numbers out of it, but software development time matters a lot, and not having caches and virtual memory makes development take a lot longer, especially for the majority of applications that don't fit neatly into the DMA pipeline model.

It probably isn't Sony's call alone with the RSX -- Nvidia probably would not be supportive of the complete disclosure of RSX details.

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  • Anonymous
    Well, next time they find a glitch in the browser they'll turn that off. Then somebody will compromise the game loader, and they will remotely brick them all completely. All for security reasons.
    21
  • Anonymous
    Good article.

    The masses don't care.
    sigh - is that how they become masses?

    I bought my ps3 because it had Linux and backward compatibility and it should become a great media streamer
    and it was the only place I could play FFXIII

    Now we are fighting to get our broke backup utility working. So far no answer from Sony support.

    sigh
    20
  • curnel_D
    Sony's overall attitude in this matter has become the industry's standard attitude.

    This is just the general cycle of things. Eventually this 'generation' (No, not just wii, 360, ps3) will die out, and in it's ashes, a new one will be born.

    Lets just remember what the oldest and most successful gaming console is: The PC.
    20
  • Other Comments
  • Anonymous
    Nobody cares. Those that do, should blame Geholt.
    -24
  • Anonymous
    Well, next time they find a glitch in the browser they'll turn that off. Then somebody will compromise the game loader, and they will remotely brick them all completely. All for security reasons.
    21
  • Hupiscratch
    Could Tom's Hardware put some numbers of GFlops of single-precision computational? And what's the i7 980 performance?
    7