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At Cornell, cluster of Pentium processors becomes a supercomputer

You may have a piece of a supercomputer on your desk -- that is, if you can get together with a few friends.

A project at Cornell University has linked a cluster of 256 Intel Pentium III microprocessors together to act as a supercomputer, the largest "tightly-coupled" system of its kind so far, using the largest hardware switch ever assembled and new control software written at Cornell. Most importantly, it may be the most cost-effective supercomputer around. Since the system is built entirely with off-the-shelf components, such a cluster could easily be built almost anywhere and used for many scientific and business applications, Cornell experts say.

"Just as your PC is getting cheaper, this is going to drive the price of supercomputing down," says David Lifka, associate director of the Cornell University Theory Center (CTC), which makes supercomputing facilities available to the university's scientists. "The thing that makes this machine special is that we used all commodity-based [off-the-shelf] components," Lifka said. "We can show that this machine is easy to replicate, for commercial, computer science and computational science applications."

The Cornell installation doesn't consist of a room full of desktop PCs, although in theory, Lifka says, the technology could be used to link all the desktop computers in an office for special number-crunching jobs. The machine, called the AC3 Velocity Cluster, is made up of 64 rack-mounted Dell Poweredge 6350 servers, each incorporating four Pentium III chips and running the Windows NT operating system. The servers are mounted in racks of eight and communicate with one another at 100 megabytes per second through a cLAN Cluster Switch made by the Giganet Corp. of Concord, Mass.

Jobs running on the system are managed by software called the Cluster ConNTroller, written at Cornell over the past two years. The software has been licensed for commercial use to MPI Software Technology Inc. of Starkville, Miss.

The resulting system runs at a speed of 122 gigaflops, a technical term meaning that it can perform 122 billion arithmatic operations per second while keeping track of the decimal point. The supercomputer that has been the centerpiece of CTC up to now, a parallel-processing IBM SP, runs at about 76 gigaflops, Lifka said.

Cluster systems can be assembled at a cost about one-fourth to one-fifth that of a traditional supercomputer, Lifka says.

At present the AC3 cluster system is in its early user testing phase, with about 20 Cornell research groups trying out applications they had previously run on the IBM supercomputer, including a hugely complex simulation of protein folding.

The cluster project is the result of a collaboration with Dell, Intel, Microsoft and Giganet, all members of CTC's Advanced Cluster Computing Consortium (AC3 ), established to bring together businesses, higher-education institutions and government agencies interested in the further development of cluster computing. AC3 also includes 15 members from the software industry. Consortium members will receive technology briefings, training and consulting services from Cornell's Cluster Computing Solutions Group, which can provide assistance in planning commercial off-the-shelf systems.


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