[ExI] Student & prof build budget supercomputer

John Grigg possiblepaths2050 at gmail.com
Mon May 12 06:36:16 UTC 2008

Student, prof build budget supercomputer


August 30 , 2007

When Tim Brom 07' set out to build a budget supercomputer with Calvin
computer science professor Joel Adams, he didn't know the product of
his efforts might end up in his checked baggage headed for England.

Brom, now a graduate student at the University of Kentucky continuing
his studies in computer science, worked with Adams to build Microwulf,
a machine that is among the smallest and least expensive
supercomputers on the planet.

"It's small enough to check on an airplane or fit next to a desk," said Brom.

This may prove useful next summer when Brom and others from his
graduate program travel to England to do work that will require "a
significant amount of computing power." And as the price of commercial
supercomputers is often prohibitive for many educational institutions,
bringing a "personal" supercomputer like Microwulf could be a
cost-effective solution for the group of graduate researchers.

"So far as we can tell, this is the first supercomputer to have this
low price/performance ratio—the first to cost less than $100/Gflop,"
said Adams.

This is a significant achievement considering that Microwulf is more
than twice as fast as Deep Blue, the IBM-created supercomputer that
beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997, and cost only a
fraction of the $5 million spent to build Deep Blue.

Microwulf has been measured to process 26.25 gigaflops, or 26.25
billion double-precision floating point instructions, per second. It
achieves this performance by relying on four dual-core motherboards
connected by an 8-port Gigabyt Ethernet switch. The connected
components form a three-tiered system that looks like a triple-decker

Supercomputers like Microwulf are used to solve problems that take too
much number-crunching for an ordinary desktop to handle, either
because its processor is too slow, or because it doesn't have enough
memory, said Adams. Truly huge supercomputers (more than 100 times as
fast as Microwulf) are used by organizations like the National Weather
Service to process meteorological data and by the United States
Missile Defense Agency to simulate nuclear tests.

Microwulf is considered a Beowulf cluster, a group of networked
computers that run open source software and work in parallel to solve
a single problem. Beowulf clusters are so named because their
homemade, cost-effective nature liberates researchers from expensive
commercial options for super-computing, much like Beowulf of the Old
English poem liberated the Danes from the tyrannical rule of Grendel.

Do Brom and Adams see themselves as "liberators" by unveiling of a
system like Microwulf?

"We're taking the liberation a step further," said Adams. "Instead of
a bunch of researchers having to share a single Beowulf cluster
supercomputer, now each researcher can have their own."

Just two years ago, building a personal supercomputer like Microwulf
for the price of a high-performance desktop was out of the realm of
possibility for Adams and Brom. But when they saw a portable Beowulf
cluster called Little Fe at a conference in October 2005, they began
to think about building their system.

"I was really enjoying my high-performance computing class and wanted
to keep working in that area after the class ended. I was also
thinking about graduate school at the time and a project like
Microwulf looks good on a curriculum vitae," said Brom.

So by the summer of 2006 when the price of hardware materials needed
to build Microwulf had gone down, Adams asked his academic department
to provide $2500 for the project. He also asked Brom, then beginning
his last year at Calvin, to help him build the supercomputer. In
January of 2007, they began to piece together their system and by
March, they were running tests to see just what Microwulf could do. In
the end, the project came in under budget with Microwulf donning a
price-tag of just $2470. With current hardware prices, another system
like Microwulf would cost half of what it cost Adams and Brom to build
earlier this year.

Though supercomputers are typically evaluated on their
price/performance ratio, Adams built Microwulf giving attention to its
power/performance ratio as well. In other words, he wanted to pay
attention to the system's energy consumption.

"This is becoming increasingly important, as excess power consumption
is inefficient and generates waste heat, which can in turn decrease
reliability," said Adams on his Web site.

Adams and Brom managed to build Microwulf so that it could plug into
one standard 120V wall outlet. This feature only enhances the system's
portability, allowing it to be taken to classrooms and other research
labs where large power supplies are unavailable.

Adams isn't going to let Microwulf gather dust in the supercomputing
lab in the Science Building. Instead he's going to take it out on the
road, mostly to middle school and high school classrooms to try and
get teenagers hooked on computer science.

Microwulf's inventors aren't set on keeping their blueprints for the
supercomputer a secret. In fact, they've just published a detailed
description and evaluation of their project on Cluster Monkey so
others can build their own portable and affordable supercomputers.

It remains to be seen whether Brom will be able to get his wire-filled
personal supercomputer past airport security next summer.

~written by Allison Graff, web communications coordinator

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