NetworkWorld posted a feature article this morning on Bruce Allen, astrophysicist turned supercomputer manufacturer. Since 1998, Allen has hand-built three clusters in order to further his research in observing theoretical gravitational waves. Allen’s latest contribution to hand-built machines has landed at #79 on the current Top500 list. The 6,000+ core machine is held together by a gigabit Ethernet backbone, all hand-laid by Allen and his staff at the Max Planck Institute. So why all the work?
If you go to a company — Dell or IBM — and you say, ‘I’ve got a $2 million budget, what can you sell me for that price?’ you’ll come back with a certain number of CPUs,” he says.
“If you then go and look at Pricewatch or some other place where you can find out how much the gear really costs, you find out that if you build something yourself with the same money you’ll end up with two or three times the processing power.”
Allen’s success with this method goes back to 1998 when he used an NSF grant to purchase some Sun workstations. Rather than buying the workstations, he bought some DEC Alpha machines cheap because they were near end-of-life.
I’ve personally seen and participated in many such grassroots cluster projects. I remember surfing the Fry’s ads looking for specific motherboards on sale. However, it takes a special amount of patience to take this road. Building and supporting machines consisting of 6,000+ cores is very labor intensive. I’ve often thought about the countless hours I spent in the lab as a fuzzy-haired college student debugging `bootp` issues on 10base Ethernet. Is it worth the effort to do so, or is the vendor-provided turnkey solution really pay off at the end of the day?
I’ll let the audience answer that one. In the mean time, you can read the full article here.