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Scientific American: The Do-It-Yourself Supercomputer

Jul 11, 2001, 22:30 (11 Talkback[s])

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"...The first PC cluster was born in 1994 at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA had been searching for a cheaper way to solve the knotty computational problems typically encountered in earth and space science. The space agency needed a machine that could achieve one gigaflops--that is, perform a billion floating-point operations per second. (A floating-point operation is equivalent to a simple calculation such as addition or multiplication.) At the time, however, commercial supercomputers with that level of performance cost about $1 million, which was too expensive to be dedicated to a single group of researchers.

One of us (Sterling) decided to pursue the then radical concept of building a computing cluster from PCs. Sterling and his Goddard colleague Donald J. Becker connected 16 PCs, each containing an Intel 486 microprocessor, using Linux and a standard Ethernet network. For scientific applications, the PC cluster delivered sustained performance of 70 megaflops--that is, 70 million floating-point operations per second. Though modest by today's standards, this speed was not much lower than that of some smaller commercial supercomputers available at the time. And the cluster was built for only $40,000, or about one tenth the price of a comparable commercial machine in 1994.

NASA researchers named their cluster Beowulf, after the lean, mean hero of medieval legend who defeated the giant monster Grendel by ripping off one of the creature's arms. Since then, the name has been widely adopted to refer to any low-cost cluster constructed from commercially available PCs. In 1996 two successors to the original Beowulf cluster appeared: Hyglac (built by researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and Loki (constructed at Los Alamos National Laboratory). Each cluster integrated 16 Intel Pentium Pro microprocessors and showed sustained performance of over one gigaflops at a cost of less than $50,000, thus satisfying NASA's original goal."

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