Industrial computing platforms and Beowulf

Beowulf is a method of "ganging up" lots of Linux-based computers to solve complex problems with practically unlimited computing power. It's sort of a low-budget supercomputer that's proven popular at universities and government labs.

The Beowulf Project was started in the summer of 1994 at CESDIS, where Thomas Sterling and Don Becker built a 16-node Intel-based computer cluster for the Earth and Space Sciences project at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The project spread to other NASA sites, other R&D labs, and to academia worldwide.

Beowulf recently gained notice in the commercial space, and Matt Porter provided a general historical background of Beowulf, an overview of conventional compared to embedded systems, Linux embedded systems, and, of course, the use of Linux in Motorola products. Porter himself has been involved in the Linux community for seven years.

MCG recently announced its first Linux-based products, and Porter was careful to describe them. They include the emS series for telecommunications; office and industrial networking applications; and the SLX series of products, which are aimed for Internet, extranet, and intranet applications. Additional products will be expanded to include platforms that incorporate MCG's x86 and PowerPC CompactPCI products, Passive PCI products, PowerPC motherboard products, and PowerPC VME products.

Using Linux on MCG's Intel x86-based system is no different from using it on other vendors' products. However, PowerPC adds PowerPlus board support in firmware (PPCBUG), serial/VGS console, TFTP network boot, and BOOTP support. You can boot Linux from on-board linear flash memory and from any known block device.

Of course, all of these are deeply embedded Linux systems. Porter argued that conventional cluster hardware suffers from density, maintainability, flexibility, and reliability problems. You get what you pay for; these commodity hardware choices are usually cheaper and more readily available than embedded systems. However, Linux embedded systems mean that you're working on single-board computers, so you get easy portability with the same amount of memory.

You'll need a chassis, at least four boards, and a 10BaseT or 10/100 BaseT switch, and cabling. The demo on the show floor used a MVME 2700 VMS board in a 12-slot VME chassis, the master slot with full Debian Linux on SCSI. It's all slave nodes, so it's diskless.

Embedded systems are more expensive, and you can't just run to Fry's and buy your hardware. However, their density makes them easily maintainable and replaceable. Remote booting and serial consoles make them flexible, and the reliability is there -- VMEs and compact PCIs are designed for longevity, after all. Also, your power consumption will go down!

Porter concluded that embedded systems are worth the initial extra hardware cost, because it saves time on the back end. MCG plans to release backplane network drivers, hot swaps (MSG already put out a PCI subsystem switch), PowerPC Linux optimizations, and Altivec support.

About the Author

Mana Tominaga works for Fawcette Technical Publications, where she covers Windows developer tools for the print magazines JavaPro, Enterprise Development, and Visual Basic Programmers Journal, and online for

(c) LinuxWorld, published by Web Publishing Inc.

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