Extreme Linux

In the past several months, a good number of corporate, government, academic, and research institutions -- Pixar, the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Shell E&P, and others -- have announced the installation of substantial, high performance Linux computing clusters. In the case of LLNL, for example, the largest of its three new clusters (built by Linux Networx) is composed of 252 Pentium 4 processors, capable of a theoretical peak of 857 gigaflops, making it one of the fastest clusters ever built. In the case of Pixar, a 1,024-processor blade cluster (using 2.8 GHz Xeons) from RackSaver is replacing the company's existing Sparc-based render farm.

In the past several months, a good number of corporate, government, academic, and research institutions — Pixar, the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Shell E&P, and others — have announced the installation of substantial, high performance Linux computing clusters. In the case of LLNL, for example, the largest of its three new clusters (built by Linux Networx) is composed of 252 Pentium 4 processors, capable of a theoretical peak of 857 gigaflops, making it one of the fastest clusters ever built. In the case of Pixar, a 1,024-processor blade cluster (using 2.8 GHz Xeons) from RackSaver is replacing the company’s existing Sparc-based render farm.

Four things are startling about these groups’ adoptions of commodity clusters. The first two surprises are the scale of the machines: the machines are enormous and simultaneously diminuitive. The machines have a mind-boggling number of fast CPUs, yet can fit in a series of 45U racks.

The next surprise is cost: clusters provide the biggest bang for your computing buck. Built from off-the-shelf parts, clusters leverage the pace of Moore’s Law and the dwindling prices of CPUs and memory.

And the last, albeit pleasant surprise, is that Linux is the operating system powering these clusters. Flexible, scalable, and perhaps most important, customizeable, Linux has earned its “street cred” in high performance computing. And as you’ll read in Dr. Thomas Sterling’s personal account of the history of Beowulf clusters, the symbiosis between Linux and Beowulf is not accidental. Indeed, from the very early days of Dr. Sterling’s and others’ work, Linux played a crucial role in the development of clusters and vice versa. In fact, the Ethernet driver you use in your Linux machine was likely born out of the necessity to tie Linux machines together in Dr. Sterling’s lab.

This month, Linux Magazine turns its attention to Linux clusters. Whether you’re considering the purchase of a new cluster or already have one installed, I hope you’ll find our features informative and insightful.

In addition to Dr. Sterling’s feature story, Dr. Robert G. Brown of Duke University explains how to estimate the total cost of cluster ownership, including the initial expense of preparing for a cluster — such as machine room construction, heating/cooling, and wiring infrastructure — and the recurring expenses required to care for and feed your cluster. Dr. Brown offers tips based on his personal experience building and installing many clusters, and all of his suggestions are likely to save you and your colleagues time, energy, and pain.

And, always practical, Linux Magazine’s “Extreme Linux” columnist Forrest Hoffman shows how to couple parallel models, a common coding problem as simulations try to visualize the interactions of more and more physical phenomena.

In fact, Forrest deserves special recognition because he proposed and organized the “Extreme” features in this issue. Forrest, thank you for your help. You did a great job.

Of course, this issue is also filled to the brim with other Linux goodies, from shiny Perl to giant robots.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for exciting stories in the coming months.


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Martin Streicher, Editor

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