If you’re a fan of James Burke-style Connections-type narratives, here’s a tale of just the sort of improbable chain of events that leads to lateral thinking and even breakthroughs in science and technology:
As a budding hacker and computer engineer, Sangjin Han did an internship at Sony Computer Entertainment - the division responsible for the Playstation line of game consoles. While there, he was exposed to and did a little programming for the “GPU-like” chip inside the Playstation 2.
A GPU, of course, is the massively parallell co-processor in a computer or game console that handles the rendering of complex three-dimensional scenes.
Having developed something of a fascination with the GPU, but having no place to express that interest as he moved away from video game programming and toward more serious engineering, he tucked away these insights and, in his spare time, kept up with the advances in GPU processors.
Years later he found himself in a group at the institute formerly known as the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, working on routers, which are the closed, proprietary switches that forward and process all of the traffic, or packets, on the Internet.
Routers are typically built by companies like Cisco and Juniper, and the big, multi-terabyte enterprise-grade ones that forward traffic on the backbone of the internet are as jaw-droppingly expensive as they are fast.
“Routers are the last bastion of specialized supercomputers,” says Sue Moon, an associate professor at KAIST and Han’s adviser.
Like every other area of supercomputing, it seems, routers are a natural target for enterprising hackers with ideas about how to match the massively parallel architecture of commodity GPUs to the massively parallel problems of our time - in this case, examining, manipulating and forwarding packets.
Even so, no one had attempted it. It took a budding engineer like Han, with his background in computer game programming for a console, to put two and two together.
That’s why he’s now the lead author on a paper describing a system we just covered in Technology Review, called PacketShader, which has smashed previous records for packet throughput for a server built from off-the-shelf parts.
This software PC router is fast enough, its creators hope, to allow researchers to experiment with novel networking protocols at real network speeds, without having to pony up for the big iron from Juniper and Cisco. These new protocols, like Openflow, could replace the 30 year old TCP/IP protocol that currently runs the Internet and is beginning to show its age.
And that’s how we get from the most popular gaming console in history to a potential re-write of the invisible, but absolutely necessary, guts of the Internet itself.
Playstation 2 controller image cc John Rowley