Uni to build DIY supercomputer

A New Zealand university is seeking hardware for a do-it-yourself, open source-operated supercomputer.

Massey University's institute of information and mathematical sciences has released a proposals tender for the supply of hardware for the project, which will involve building a Beowulf cluster supercomputer that incorporates a gigabit ethernet connection.

Beowulf clusters, a small version of which the university already employs, are made of conventional PC processors networked via ethernet and are able to process at a rate of gigaflops, or billions of operations per second.

The latest tender specifies a set-up with a theoretical maximum speed of 400Gflops, but Chris Messon, the university's director of parallel computing, says if the institute can get half that, "it will still be very respectable".

Open source software is another requirement of the project, and while the existing Beowulf cluster runs on Linux, "any open platform will be considered".

Messon says the price will be approximately $250,000, "but we'll take what we get from the proposals". Up to 128 processors, or possibly 64 joint processor-SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) nodes, could be required.

The institute's 16-node Beowulf cluster was installed several years ago. "So we've already had experience in that area, but what we're proposing is of an order of magnitude greater."

"The existing cluster has worked very well and it's mainly the bioinformatics people who use it, but on the computer science side we've used it for genetic programming," says Messon. The genetic programming has been used for writing and evolving applications in fields including mobile robotics and navigation codes, "and with the larger cluster we'll be able to extend that with some more interesting applications, such as navigation for two-legged humanoid robots," he says. Bioinformatics applications for the supercomputer will include gene sequencing.

Familiarity with Beowulf clusters isn't essential for tenderers, Messon says. "Most of the hardware is standardised, so if a tenderer has Beowulf experience it would be a bonus, but any company that's used to putting in large numbers of computers for business applications would be in a suitable position."

Massey's supercomputer will be one of very few in New Zealand, Messon says.

"Auckland University has two, Niwa in Wellington has one and there may be a few others people aren't keen to publicise."

Auckland University and Niwa's supercomputers aren't Beowulf clusters. Auckland's are an SGI Onyx and an IBM Regatta. Niwa's is a Cray.

Messon says he is unaware of any other Beowulf clusters in New Zealand. A four-node one is planned for Massey's Palmerston North campus.

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