A different Big Mac index

Given my fondness for Apple computers you knew I would eventually write about the Virginia Tech Mac-based supercomputer-on-the-cheap. I was waiting for some of the testing to be completed. Because the test numbers are beginning to come in, I guess it’s time.

This is one heck of a system — not the sort of thing that you would want in your den, but it looks quite useful for those into computational fluid dynamics.

After looking at various alternatives, including AMD systems and systems based on IBM technology, the school had just about given up when Apple announced the new dual 2GHz G5 processor desktop last June. A few days later, after a trip to Apple headquarters to convince the company that the school was serious, Virginia Tech ordered 1100 systems via Apple’s online store. Apple started delivering the machines September 5, and a small army of Virginia Tech students and teachers worked around the clock to install and interconnect the machines.

Virginia Tech spent $US5.2 million on the Apple computers, Cisco Systems Gigabit Ethernet and Mellanox Technology InfiniBand switches, plus $2 million more on upgrading the building, installing a big Liebert UPS and a backup generator. This is rather more than I spent on my last Apple PowerBook but a pittance compared with the $30 to $200 million that others have recently spent to join the same club.

This shows that stock high-end Apple computers can be cost/performance competitive with the best that any other company can offer and that the OS X operating system can be used for advanced clustering applications with minimal special software. I would expect that the next generation of Apple’s servers would be even better for this sort of thing because they are much smaller, and more can fit in a rack. Also, because Virginia Tech will publish all the designs and (hopefully if the school can deal with the patent issues) all of the software used, I would expect to see a bunch of these Mac clusters popping up in research institutions and Fortune 100 companies soon.

Economists use the Big Mac Index to compare prices in different countries. The Big Mac might do the same for those comparing the costs of high-end computing. If so, it will not be good news for companies building traditional supercomputers.

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