The Big Party In Machine City

How to rub elbows with the crew who started it all (and get some free beer)

There is a city that has the largest concentration of computers and computer geeks that you can imagine. In this city, almost everyone talks about computers day and night. Almost everywhere you look in this city there are blinking LEDs. This city has one of the most sophisticated networks in the world — plus free wifi! There are even places around this city you can go and get free beer. There are famous people living in this city. There are people who you see corresponding on email lists all year, they are here as well. If you are an HPC computer geek this is not quite heaven, but it is close. There is only one problem, the city only exists for four days each year.

If you have not figured out what I am talking about, then you may need to check out SC08 in Austin this year. The show runs from Monday Night November 17th until the 20th. The show and conference began in 1988 and are sponsored by the IEEE Computer Society and the ACM. Each year a virtual city of computers and networks is built in a convention center somewhere in the US. Of course, there are other computer trade shows, but how many have a 100Gbps network or have bleeding edge research and industry exhibits all under one roof.

I’ll be writing directly from the show in a few weeks. I’ll report on what I think is important and what is not. I like to look at both the new products and the “mood” of the market. Stay tuned as many companies wait all year to announce the latest and greatest at this show. Instead of offering any predictions or other hype, I want to talk about one of the lesser known community events that happens each year at Supercomputing.

For me one of the high points of the show is the Beowulf Bash party. This event is unlike any other at the show. Indeed, like the whole open source HPC cluster idea, the “bash” began and still is about community. A little Beobash history will help. If you want the full Beowulf story, consult Tom Sterling’s excellent article: Beowulf Breakthroughs as well.

Back before the turn of the century (1999), some of us Linux cluster geeks thought it would be a nice idea to at least meet each other in person. After years of talking and working together on the Beowulf Mailing List, it seemed like a good idea to try verbal communication and beer. There are those that thought this experiment may fail as the whole idea of Linux commodity clustering was, at that time, considered a foolish experiment with no chance of success. Cough, cough.

There was also the issue of paying for the refreshments. Since all the “Beowulf” companies were new and small, there was a real cash flow issue. That is, no one company could foot the bill for beer, wine, and pretzels at one of the conference hotels. Then in the spirit of community and sharing, some of the early players decided to pool some money and put on a community cluster shindig.

The idea worked, Don Becker and I even managed to accept some cash from Microsoft research. We decided to hold it on the first night of the show right after the Monday night opening event. We realized that with a meager budget and a wacky idea (commodity clusters) we had little chance of competing with the big-boy parties later in the week — what with all their sliced beef and fancy cheese trays. The event was a great success. And, I have evidence to prove it. We estimated over 100 people came by the first party that night. The best part was meeting all the people who contributed to the Beowulf effort so far. There seemed to be the recognition that we were a real community. I believe we ran out of beer and continued elsewhere in the hotel, but I could be mistaken because any number of Beobash parties that have happened over the years turned out this way.

This year will be our ninth year. In many respects, the Beobash is like a yearly reunion of many of those who grew the Linux Cluster concept from a “Are you serious?” proposition, to a “What the heck just happened to the HPC market?” reality. I have to gloat a bit here because I am always amused by the many isles of commodity clusters at the current Supercomputing shows. I chuckle a bit when I recall the looks and comments directed toward the two or three cluster vendors on the show floor back in 1999.

This years party also represents the folding of another cluster event into the Beobash. If the Beobash is the family reunion, the LECCIBG are the naughty boys (and girls) playing cards, drinking, and smoking out behind the reception hall. The idea started out innocently enough, but the event grew bigger than anyone ever imagined (or would admit under oath). The whole sorted history of the LECCIBG can be found elsewhere.

Underneath all the FLOPS, it is really about the power of community. People with a common goal got together and just made it work. If you are attending SC08, please stop by for this years Beowulf Bash have drink, rub elbows with the community, and maybe even have some fancy cheese.

This years sponsors are AMD, Cluster Monkey, NVidia, Panasas, Penguin/Sclyd Computing, Terascala, and XAND Marketing. Thanks for supporting the community.

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