Very interesting artical about supercomputer project @ Virginia Tech. Them Hokies aren't THAT dumb!
Low-Cost Supercomputer Put Together From 1,100 PC's
By JOHN MARKOFF
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 21 — A home-brew supercomputer, assembled from off-the-shelf personal computers in just one month at a cost of slightly more than $5 million, is about to be ranked as one of the fastest machines in the world.
Word of the low-cost supercomputer, put together by faculty, technicians and students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, is shaking up the esoteric world of high performance computing, where the fastest machines have traditionally cost from $100 million to $250 million and taken several years to build.
The Virginia Tech supercomputer, put together from 1,100 Apple Macintosh computers, has been successfully tested in recent days, according to Jack Dongarra, a University of Tennessee computer scientist who maintains a listing of the world's 500 fastest machines.
The official results for the ranking will not be reported until next month at a supercomputer industry event. But the Apple-based supercomputer, which is powered by 2,200 I.B.M. microprocessors, was able to compute at 7.41 trillion operations a second, a speed surpassed by only three other ultra-fast computers.
The fastest computers on the current Top 500 list are the Japanese Earth Simulator; a Los Alamos National Laboratory machine dedicated to weapons design; and another weapons oriented cluster of Intel Pentium 4 microprocessors at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.
Officials at the school said that they were still finalizing their results and that the final speed number might be significantly higher.
"We are demonstrating that you can build a very high performance machine for a fifth to a tenth of the cost of what supercomputers now cost," said Hassan Aref, the dean of the School of Engineering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. The computer was put together in a virtual flash. Scientists from the school met with Apple executives two days after the company introduced its new 64-bit desktop computer in June.
Apple agreed to put the school at the head of the line for the new machines. Starting when they returned to school in September, student volunteers, who received free pizzas for their labor, helped with the assembly of the system, essentially an array of large refrigerators to keep the computers from overheating. Virginia Tech's president offered free football tickets to the technicians who were spending long hours on the project.
"When you have a small budget," said Srinidhi Varadarajan, a leader of the project, "you have to take risks."
The ranking is a coup for Apple, which for several years has lagged behind, in terms of raw computing speed, the PC world controlled by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices microprocessors. It is also an indication that the supercomputer industry, which has been in eclipse since the end of the cold war, is again playing a more vital role.
"On the surface this is a pretty impressive machine," Mr. Dongarra said. "It shows that the processors are getting to the point where this kind of performance will be quite common."
The performance of the new computer highlights the challenge to highly expensive custom-designed machines — like the Earth Simulator of Japan, which is assembled from 5,120 custom processors that have special circuitry for performing long strings of mathematical operations — from computers put together by linking more common off-the-shelf components in fairly simple ways.
The Japanese computer was measured at 35.8 trillion operations a second last year but American computer experts estimate that it cost as much as $250 million. By contrast, the fastest cluster machine, the Lawrence Livermore system consisting of 2304 Intel Xeon processors, is capable of 7.63 trillion operations a second, at a price estimated at $10 million to $15 million. The Virginia Tech computer makes the cost-to-performance equation even starker.