Calvin Prof Receives Government Grant
Other individuals and organizations, including businesses, are building and using supercomputers, but professor Joel Adams has a practical approach that many business managers can relate to: He's working to whittle down the cost-per-gigaflop of supercomputing.
At the same time in late August when the latest NSF grant to Adams was announced, computer experts around the world were sending him congratulatory e-mails for something else — the success of Microwulf, a portable supercomputer that Adams and Tim Brom, one of his former students, built last winter.
Microwulf has a peak performance of 26.25 gigaflops. (One gigaflop in this case is one billion double-precision floating point instructions per second.)
According to the
It may be the most cost-efficient supercomputer in the world.
Microwulf is four dual-core motherboards connected by an 8-port Gigabyt Ethernet switch. For the CPUs, they chose AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800 AM2+.
"At $165 each in January 2007, these 2.0 GHz dual-core CPUs were the most cost-efficient CPUs we could find,"
"They are even cheaper now — about $65 on
The new breed of do-it-yourself supercomputers are actually "clusters" of PCs hooked together, running in unison. Each PC or "node" is working on a different piece of a complex problem.
Beowulf clusters are assembled from over-the-counter PC components — which keep getting faster and more powerful, and lower priced, virtually every day.
The components for Microwulf were purchased from NFP Enterprise LLC, a small shop in
Manufacturers make the key components, and sell them to thousands of other companies that assemble their own brand of computers. Components are also sold to retailers who sell them to computer geeks who build their own PCs — or supercomputers, as the case may be. A second factor forcing prices down is that while CPUs (or chips) are becoming more powerful, they are also becoming smaller, which lowers the cost of producing them.
In addition to being cost-efficient, Microwulf is also more energy efficient than other super computers. It uses about 17 watts of power per gigaflop, or 450 total. That's about half of the watts used by the average microwave oven. Electrical use is important because supercomputers are usually run continuously.
"Researchers submit jobs that will run for hours, days and sometimes weeks," said
More electrical use also means more heat is generated by the computer, thus "the more air conditioning is needed to cool it," explained
NASA researchers needing a supercomputer but facing a tight budget helped get the ball rolling back in 1994, according to
Another factor that helps make it feasible to build and operate a supercomputer is "open source" software, available free on the Internet. One that makes a huge difference to innovators like
Another change that has made do-it-yourself supercomputers possible is the continuous technological improvements that are increasing computing speed. The first Beowulf cluster CPUs ran at 100 megahertz; today they run at three Ghz. (One GHz is equal to 1,000 megahertz.)
Computer geeks named the new supercomputer concept a "Beowulf cluster" because Beowulf was the hero who freed the Danes from the tyranny of Grendel. The Beowulf cluster frees small companies and nonprofit organizations such as
At first glance, Microwulf does not look like a computer simply because it is not concealed inside a case. The three layers of connected components, wiring and cooling fans are fully exposed. The components are mounted on scrap Plexiglas to save money. It's not pretty.
"All the money went for performance," said
They also worked hard to design for compactness, to make it easily portable. It could probably be a carry-on on an airplane, since it measures only 11 by 12 by 17 inches, and weighs less than 31 pounds.
Microwulf is about twice as fast as Ohm, the 18-node Beowulf cluster that Adams and his students built in 2001 with a $167,000 grant from the NSF. Ohm stands 7 feet high, 6 feet wide and 2 feet deep, and it runs continuously. While Ohm is used for teaching, it is also very practical for use in extensive research by a number of
The latest grant will enable the Calvin computer science department to order PC components for a new Beowulf cluster that will have "at least 32 nodes," according to
While Ohm is dismantled to make room for the new supercomputer, Microwulf will be used by Calvin's student programmers. Being portable,