Originated at NASA, the Beowulf class supercomputer is a cluster of commodity class (that is ... off the shelf) PCs which, when lashed together with ethernet and running Linux, can outperform some of the world's most expenisve supercomputers at only a fraction of the price.

The notion that a Beowulf cluster can outperform a traditional supercomputer at a much cheaper price is unfortunately very widespread, but wrong. The truth is that
a Beowulf cluster is totally unfit for the class of problems that require real supercomputing, mainly because Ethernet has much too little bandwidth and, more importantly, too high latency for the massive communication required by these problems. This doesn't mean that the Beowulf concept of a cluster of workstations is useless - it's great when you have localized computations, but then you didn't need a real supercomputer in the first place.

Rancid_Pickle: you misunderstood me. Let me clarify: Yes, supercomputers do, of course, also use lots of processors. But the assumption that lots of fast processors can just be put together to make a supercomputer (which lies at the heart of the "Cluster of workstations == cheap Supercomputer" assumption) is false, or rather, is true only for some kinds of computational jobs. It's true for raytracing, brute force encryption cracking and for the signal analysis that SETI@home does. But it's not true for some other jobs, like physical or chemical simulations. On those problems, a Beowulf cluster would perform very, very poorly, because all the processors would spend 99% of their cycles doing nothing and waiting for data because each part of the problem depends on the previous results of other parts. Real supercomputing requires fast processors and lots of RAM for each of them and (most importantly) an extremely fast, low-latency interconnection network. The ASCI machines like the Blue Mountain one have that, a cluster of workstations doesn't.

I'm afraid I have to disagree, -brazil-. Supercomputers are used for exceptionally difficult problems, such as weather prediction and especially nuclear weapons research. The new Blue Mountain system, made by Silicon Graphics and installed in New Mexico, consists of well over 1,000 processors. Its purpose? Nuclear research, and it's currently one of the three fastest systems available for the purpose. Rather than bang away at a problem with a few centralized processors, the problem can be broken into thousands of parts, worked on, then re-assembled. If you wish to make another comparison, look at distributed computing with the SETI system. Thousands of folks are donating spare CPU ticks to search for extraterrestrial life. They break the problem into tiny chunks, send it out to get processed, then the data is reassembled. If a supercomputer could crank through the data faster, they would've used a Cray and finished the job. It's faster to use many processors to do bits of work.

rp says WonkoDSane says (to me, by mistake) I don't want to add a response WU to Beowulf Cluster, but you may want to add that the other reason why SETI doesn't use one big SC is because it can't afford to do such things.

In my OS class instead of an assigment provided by the prof, we had an option of doing something else. We decided to "build" a Beowulf cluster. We didn't do much with it except actually figure out how to install and manage everything. My partner did most of the work. I was left with doing a writeup. Here it is. It sort of glosses over the results: we successfully built a cluster and ran the test suite. That's about it. Well, here it is, broken english and all.

Node your homework!

What is a beowulf cluster or Beowulf cluster vs Supercomputer

  Beowulf cluster is essentially a number of commodity or of the
  shelf PCs tied together using some sort of protocol. Developed
  by NASA, Beowulf clusters gained much attention in the last few
  years. Often at a fraction of a cost of a "real" supercomputer
  a beowulf cluster is comparable (or even exceeds) the
  computational power of a super computer. For instance the a
  cluster made out of 320 ubiquitous P3-800 CPUs takes 34th place
  on the TOP500 super computer list with peak performance of over
  a teraflop!

What is required for a beowulf cluster

  Essentially all that is needed is a number of available machines.
  Historically most of the software written for beowulf clusters
  is Linux based. Due to centralized nature of beowulf clusters
  machines will need to communicate to the central server.
  Ethernet is both cheap and widely available which makes it
  especially convenient. On top of Linux you'll have to run some
  sort of communication layer which will provide the required
  infrastructure between the nodes of your beowulf cluster. There
  are few choices; among them OSCAR from NCSA and LAM-MPI
  developed by a team from University of Notre Dame. We've chosen
  LAM-MPI because of it's simplicity and because of the fact that
  it's being continuously developed. 

Why would you want to have a beowulf cluster

  Although there are certain drawbacks to beowulf clusters they
  provide a cheap alternative to buying a "real" super computer.
  For instance in a school like Langara there are hundreds unused
  computers during off peak hours. Students doing simulations or
  other research could possibly use these idle computers to their
  advantage. Supercomputers in general and beowulf clusters in
  particular have been used for everything from chess playing to
  cancer and nuclear research. Moving away from serious research
  subjects we've found that there are applications out there that
  will allow you to encode your music into mp3 format using
  distributed approach - namely clustering software.


  Message passing interface (MPI) is one of the widely recognized
  standards for communication between beowulf nodes. Local Area
  Multicomputer (LAM) from the University of Notre Dameis one of
  the most popular implementation of the MPI protocol. It
  provides an abstraction layer for C/++, Perl, Python and other
  popular languages and enables them to create multi-computer
  parallel application. MPI-LAM deals with communication between
  heterogenous nodes and provides standard MPI interface. LAM
  provides an extensive set of debugging applications. It
  supports MPI-1 and parts of MPI-2. LAM is not only restricted
  to Linux. It will compile on many commercial Unicies.

Our particular implementation

  For the ease of implementation we've decided to use NFS to
  mount the shared software (MPI-LAM) across all the nodes. On
  boot up we pass the required parameters to the LILO which boots
  the workstation from the network. On the server, we have a
  directory structure which is mirrored through the network
  across every node. Since LAM does all of it's processing in
  /tmp we have it created as a RAM drive which improves
  performance immensely. Since we're using a very recent kernel,
  we can set the ram disk size to be dynamic (max 8MB) so it only
  uses as much RAM as it actually has files in /tmp.  
Thoughts on this setup

  Having been through this process, we'd say that using NFS-root
  is worthwhile for a large, fast network, but that on a 10MB
  network it's too expensive to be justified.  We've tested nodes
  running at 10MB while playing with home network, and while
  stability wasn't compromised, it hugely magnified the time the
  test suite took to run.  On the other hand even though mounting
  the shared software from one central repository eases the
  maintenance, the performance is hit because Ethernet is the
  primary method of communication between the nodes in the
  beowulf cluster. Further tests should be performed comparing
  performance in a NFS-network vs no-NFS network.

Hardware used for the tests

  Home test network (successfully tested with LAM-MPI test
  suite): server: celeron 500, 192MB RAM node1:  celeron 900,
  128MB RAM node2:  Pentium III 933, 256MB RAM

  Dungeon test network (marginal stability at best): server:
  Pentium 133, 32MB RAM nodes 1,4,5: Pentium 133, 32MB RAM

  These nodes were the most stable, likely because they were on
  the same hub as the server. The rest were on the other side of
  a coax uplink, which seemed a bit flaky under load.  

Problems & Difficulties for a prospective user of a beowulf

  Like practically any other task in life the difficulty for a
  first time user will depend on his or her expertise. As was
  mentioned, Beowulf clusters are usually built using Linux.
  However using MPI-LAM many other forms of Unicies become
  available to the user. Once the user establishes his operating
  system preference, the network topology will have to chosen.
  Ethernet seems to be a winning choice because of it's
  availability. Last but not least is the software to drive the
  cluster. The communication software doesn't have to be written
  from scratch; instead communication libraries like LAM-MPI can
  be used. The user then, will have to write his own application
  employing the communication abstraction layer to achieve his
  particular goal.

  To summarize, the decisions in building a beowulf cluster will
  have to be made in roughly the four following categories: 

        1. Operating System 
        2. Network Topology 
        3. Communication
        4. Software
  From personal experience (we're fairly familiar with everything
  up to "Software") it seems that writing a massively parallel
  application is the hardest task of all.

Summary & Conclusion

  The purpose of this assignment was to research and try to build
  a Linux Beowulf Cluster. Hopefully this paper managed to show
  that we've successfully scaled both problems.  MPI-LAM was
  chosen to implement the cluster as a result of our research.
  We've successfully built a node network and run the tests which
  prove the cluster functions as promised.

  Although writing software for a parallel cluster seems like
  beyond the scope of this course (and many magnitudes harder
  than this project) it's nevertheless something we may want to
  peruse for the next assignment.

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