Microsoft, Dell and Intel help expand Cornell cluster

Three technology heavyweights joined with the US Cornell Theory Center (CTC) Monday to announce their expansion of a project to build large, low-cost computer clusters with readily available hardware and software.

Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp., and Dell Computer Corp. will provide the CTC, located on the Ithaca, New York, campus of Cornell University, with US$60 million in technology resources over the next four years. The agreement, which calls for the IT vendors to donate the technology, will help CTC double the size of a current 425 server cluster used for high performance computing (HPC) tasks.

The cost of building and maintaining the CTC cluster has already shown substantial cost savings over specialized computers designed for similar tasks, said Thomas Coleman, CTC director and Cornell computer scientist, during a Monday conference call with the press.

"Clustered computing has a big edge over traditional supercomputing in cost per cycle," Coleman said.

Unlike some supercomputers that use custom-made interconnect and processing technology, the CTC cluster is built out of readily available technology. It links together hundreds of Dell PowerEdge servers running on Intel's Xeon and Itanium chips and Microsoft's server software to create a powerful computer that can handle large, complex calculations.

The effort to expand the CTC cluster marks a growing trend in the industry to use commodity products for complex computing tasks. Ever-improving processor performance and better software tools have made it possible to build powerful computers out of off-the-shelf components. While these systems can handle many tasks, traditional supercomputers are still considered the best option for the most complex computing work done by laboratories and other research bodies. Microsoft, Intel and various server makers however have been honing their technology for years to try to build ever-larger clusters and make inroads into the supercomputer market.

The CTC cluster will be used for research into a variety of areas, including bioinformatics, behavioral and social sciences, computer science, engineering, and business. The group involved hopes to advance high performance computing in these areas by creating technology that can be used by the private sector.

CTC plans to create a technology showcase center for its applications in the financial district of New York. This center will help link the lab's projects with clients, Coleman said.

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