University builds cluster in a day; fails to make list

Students and staff at the University of San Francisco failed in their attempt last Saturday to build a supercomputer that would run a benchmark fast enough to secure it a place in the Top 500 list of supercomputers.

The so-called Flashmob Computing 1 supercomputer, which was built out of laptop and desktop PCs brought in by volunteers, managed to achieve a performance rating of 180 gigaflops with 256 nodes. It had spent 70 minutes calculating 75 percent of a standard benchmark that all Top 500 hopefuls have to run, before a bad network connection on one of the nodes caused the entire system to collapse.

Volunteers brought in 700 computers on Saturday, which was less than half of the anticipated number. The Flashmob team had built the software required to run the test so that it could pinpoint problems with CPU and memory, but it hadn't anticipated problems at the client networking level. After much testing and axing of some bad nodes, the team decided to run a benchmark test with just 256 computers.

"Although (the computers' network connections) are meant to be rated 100 Base-T, maybe some of them weren't so high. It was a transient networking bug," said Pat Miller, a computer scientist at the Center for Applied Scientific Computing at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a USF lecturer, whose do-it-yourself supercomputer class sparked the original Flashmob Computing idea.

The university had anticipated volunteers to turn up on the day with 1,400 computers, which would create a supercomputer boasting 600 gigaflops of processing power -- enough to crunch the benchmark in under four hours. That rating would enable Flashmob to barely make the bottom of the next list that's published in June.

Despite the outcome, the university called the event an "unconditional success" in that it showed the scientific community that a supercomputer could be built using "ordinary" machines. A system packing a performance rating of 180 gigaflops would be big enough to do plasma modeling, said Greg Benson, assistant professor of Computer Science at USF.

The event attracted many big-name speakers, including Jim Gray, Distinguished Engineer in Microsoft's Scalable Servers Research Group, William Thigpen chief of engineering branch of NAS (NASA Advanced Supercomputing Division) and Horst Simon, a director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.

Also at the event to watch history unfold were two men who had made their mark on the industry decades before: Gene Amdahl, founder of one of IBM's archrivals Amdahl Corp., and Gordon Bell, inventor of Digital Equipment's VAX minicomputer.

Both Miller and Benson say they will be involved in other Flashmob efforts with the scientific community, and that many universities across the world had contacted USF with an interest in setting up Flashmob 2.

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Linda Leung

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