Beowulf caught for speeding

Sep 05, 2002, vol. 25, no. 1
By Carol Thorbes

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Rob Ballantyne (left), centre for experimental and constructive mathematics researcher, SFU mathematics professor Jonathan Borwein (centre) and Martin Siegert, academic computing services consultant, created SFU's beowulf, one of the world's fastest computers.

Locked behind several sets of doors in the bowels of Simon Fraser University's academic computing services (ACS), a beowulf cluster processes bytes of information with fearsome speed.

But the supercomputer system, named after a sixth century legendary Scandinavian warrior, instills pride, not fear, in its creators' hearts.

June 2002 will go down in history as the month the cluster conquered a spot on the top 500 list of the world's fastest computers, for the first time.
Housed in an impressive bank of 96 dual processor computers, the cluster is the 465th fastest computer in the world.

“We made it,” exclaims an overjoyed Jonathan Borwein, former director of SFU's centre for experimental and constructive mathematics (CECM), and one of the creators of SFU's electronic creature.

“Statistics on high-performance computers are of major interest to manufacturers, users, researchers and potential users,” explains Borwein. “These people wish to know not only the number of systems installed, but also the location of various supercomputers within the high-performance computing community and the applications for which a computer system is being used. Such statistics can facilitate the establishment of collaborations, the exchange of data and software, and provide a better understanding of the high-performance computer market.”

Given several industries' (e.g. the film industry) insatiable need for faster computer processing, the top 500 list has become a Who's Who of computers.

“Computer vendors try to spin the list to their own advantage,” notes Borwein.

Since June 1993, a worldwide network of high-performance computer experts, computational scientists, manufacturers and members of the Internet community has maintained the list. It is updated twice annually.
Entries are ranked according to the speed and accuracy with which they process a dense system of linear equations called the Linpack benchmark.

It was physicist and ACS systems engineer Martin Siegert's commitment to affordable, parallel computing that led him to lasso 96 store-bought personal computers and create SFU's equation-slaying beowulf cluster at a cost of $345,000.

“That's a fraction of what it would cost private industry to build the same cluster,” says Siegert.

SFU is one of only five Canadian universities on the top 500 list of the world's fastest computers. The list has been compiled for the last 19 years.

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