Beowulf super performance

February 05, 2004, vol. 29, no. 3
By Terry Lavender

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Simon Fraser University now has four Beowulf supercomputer clusters.

Three of the powerful, inexpensive supercomputers are humming along in the basement of Strand Hall on the Burnaby campus. The fourth, and newest, began operations shortly before Christmas at the Surrey campus.

Beowulf clusters are named after the hero of the old English poem of the same name, a 6th Century Danish warrior who fought and slew two monsters and a dragon.

Widely used in academia, the clusters are high-performance computers built out of commodity hardware components and running open source operating systems. According to the Beowulf website, the clusters get “supercomputer performance on some problems for a third to a tenth the price of a traditional supercomputer.”

Surrey's Beowulf cluster comprises 128 Intel Pentium 4 processors clocked at 3.0 Gigaherz, says Kay Wiese (below), director of the InfoNet media centre at the Surrey campus.

Funding for the InfoNet media centre cluster came from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the British Columbia knowledge development fund.

The cluster will be used for bioinformatics research such as structure prediction for biomolecules and three-dimensional volume modelling of cell tissue, Wiese says, as well as to research systems software and media processing such as audio and video compression.

Martin Siegert, who heads research services in academic computing services, says Beowulf clusters are the future of parallel computing.

His group is trying to coordinate the use of SFU's Beowulf clusters and educate faculty on which clusters can be used and how to best take advantage of them.

“We offer to help with system administration and coordination of efforts, exchanges of ideas, etc.”

SFU's first Beowulf cluster, called the Bugaboos, was installed in 2002. Since then, Siegert says, it “has become a truly university wide computer facility. Researchers from mathematics, statistics, physics, chemistry, biology, computing science, engineering, economics and business all use this cluster for their research. It has been so successful that we are currently planning to upgrade the processors and its memory to double its current performance.”

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