Calvin Prof Receives Government Grant

September 17, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — A Calvin College computer science professor has received a $205,000 grant from the federal government's National Science Foundation to build a supercomputer — again.

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 CalvinCollege communications and marketing department, Microwulf is more than twice as fast as Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer that defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997 and cost $5 million to build. Microwulf cost a little under $2,500 to build.

It may be the most cost-efficient supercomputer in the world. Adams said he and his cohorts are not aware of any other supercomputer with as low a price-to-performance ratio as Microwulf — "the first to cost less than $100 per g-flop.”

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," Adams wrote in a report he published on the Web site.

"They are even cheaper now — about $65 on August 1, 2007," he added. That means the cost-per-gigaflop for an identical Microwulf today would be about $47.84 or less, compared to $94.10 back in January.

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.

Adams likes to compare the concept to that of one person faced with eating a huge pizza that is cut into 18 slices. Bring over 17 friends to help eat it, and the problem is solved in no time at all.

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 ComstockPark. Victor Matthews, the owner, said prices are dropping because of new efficiencies in manufacturing. "Components are becoming more standardized," he said.

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 Adams. "So reliability and uninterrupted service is very important, and with the increasing price of energy, power efficiency is of increasing importance."

More electrical use also means more heat is generated by the computer, thus "the more air conditioning is needed to cool it," explained Adams. Waste heat can seriously impact the operation of a computer, which is why rooms occupied by supercomputers and servers are always impressively air conditioned, much cooler than the typical office.

NASA researchers needing a supercomputer but facing a tight budget helped get the ball rolling back in 1994, according to Adams. A traditional custom-built mainframe or supercomputer ordered from one of the major computer companies was very expensive, so the NASA people hooked 16 PCs together in a cluster and connected the cluster to their network, with each node running parallel software. The network was still a bottleneck that slowed them down, however, until 100 Mbps Ethernet hardware and software became available. NASA ended up paying a fraction of the cost a vendor would have charged for a custom-built supercomputer.

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 Adams is the open source Linux operating system.

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 CalvinCollege from oppressively high prices for supercomputers.

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 Adams

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 CalvinCollege faculty members. Being a heavy-duty numbers cruncher, Ohm has been used in photo ionization, by a chemistry professor in molecular modeling, and to model the transport mechanism in lipid proteins. An astronomy faculty member used it to model Saturn's atmosphere and its interaction with Saturn's rings.

Adams said the new supercomputer that will replace Ohm is already planned for use by a Calvin engineering professor who will simulate an advanced electrical system for a ship in order to test it before the ship is built.

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 Adams.

While Ohm is dismantled to make room for the new supercomputer, Microwulf will be used by Calvin's student programmers. Being portable, Adams will also be taking it to other schools for demonstrations.     

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