PS3’s OtherOS: The Other Side

This is an independently submitted guest article from reader 3shirts.  It has not been edited by TheSixthAxis staff. The  views discussed here do not necessarily reflect those of TheSixthAxis.

Upon reading the “PS3: No Linux, No Issue” article yesterday, and the heated commenting that went on beneath it, of which I was part, I felt moved to write my own views on the OtherOS removal kerfuffle.

As a self-confessed geek I was excited to find out that the PS3 had full support to run Linux in the build up to its release. A chance to see what that Cell processor could really do when set some straight number crunching algorithms was interesting, to me at least! On top of that though was the big bonus that I could pick up a games console that would also be another computer, connected to my nice HD TV in the lounge instead of my 17″ monitor upstairs in the office.

Let me be completely honest here, if the PS3 had never had this feature I would more than likely have still bought one but there is no denying this took it well into the ‘firm purchase’ category for me. Three years on and my (now Ubuntu) Linux partition still sees regular action. I admit I am in a minority there but as a Linux user, I am used to that.

Into this story comes Geohot, a hacker who has been working for some time to break down the barrier between the OtherOS (in which we can use Linux) and the GameOS. He succeeds and it puts the willies up Sony!

Anyone who knows about information security will know that identifying and patching holes is the only way to improve security but you can hire the best locksmith in town and find he still leaves the window open. Unfortunately for Sony, on this occasion it was a very loud black hat hacker who found the open window.

Sony’s response seems to be to remove the OtherOS functionality, thus removing the way in.

If you want to stretch the analogy further, is the best reaction really to brick up all the windows? Couldn’t they get a window expert in to put some double glazing on?

Ok, that analogy has gone to the EU to complain about being overworked so I’ll drop it. The point is that I can’t believe Sony cannot find any other way to prevent this. They have released a new ‘optional’ firmware update, the only purpose of which appears to be the removal of the OtherOS function and while this will not be a problem for the vast majority of PS3 owners there are a small but significant minority who feel this is just not fair.

Oh sure the update is optional but PS3 firmware updates are not branched, meaning the next compulsory update (the ones without which you cannot connect to PSN) will also have this feature removed so suddenly the ‘option’ becomes running Linux or playing online. In that sense, OtherOS functionality IS being simply taken away.

I work for an information security company and we have two units PURELY bought to run brute force password attacks for the penetration testing team. We have all seen the pictures of the military installations running dozens of networked PS3s, all running custom Linux distributions for the purpose of harnessing the Cell’s number crunching power. These were bought for the OtherOS feature ALONE. Of course they are not online and will not be updated but it shows that this is not some useless tacked on feature that no-one cares about.

I have no desire to play pirated games or even homebrew on my PS3 and I absolutely do not condone unauthorised hacking. I simply want to be able to continue to enjoy ALL the features which made up the product on which I spent £450 of my hard earned cash. This is not simply the point of view of an OtherOS user but of an electronics consumer in general.

The argument that only a small number will be affected is just selfish and ignorant, there are minorities in all walks of life and it is not ok to just ignore them!

The article finished with the following statements: “Are people still using it? I don’t think so. Will PS3 gamers miss the option? Hell, no.”

This is a completely inaccurate assumption. I have never once used the YellowDog or Ubuntu forums relating to my PS3 Linux install because I either found my answers with Google or figured them out myself. Remember most Linux users are going to be pretty knowledgeable and will have got a stable system running which they no longer need help with. A lack of activity in support forums does not indicate a lack of PS3 Linux use.

Linux is still only the secondary use of my console, I AM A PS3 GAMER and hell, yes I will miss it!

So we are to lose OtherOS, just like that?

A lot of people are saying that we should blame GeoHot for this; after all it is his hack that has caused this reaction. While I can see the point, I think that is a little naive. I am quite sure Sony could do more here but have taken the business decision that, since us Linux users are a minority and since it’s the cheaper option, requiring little to no security patching, they will simply pull the OtherOS and be done with it. As an added bonus for them, they can spin it that it’s all GeoHot’s fault and he is the bad man who has taken away our Linux.

This is all speculation and opinion of course, but it’s the other side of the argument and one worth considering. Sony are a business, they want to prevent the damage of this potential piracy gateway and put as little cash into doing that as possible but they must consider that those who use the OtherOS, and who ARE Linux geeks are also likely to have the knowledge to join with Geohot purely to ‘get back at’ Sony. Giving them a reason to may not be a wise move.