US college creates cheap supercomputer

Students and teachers at Virginia Tech college in the US have built one of the world's most powerful supercomputers for just $5 million, slashing by 95% the usual cost of one of these rare machines.

    Apple's new computer is one of the most powerful available

    The computer was made by plugging together hundreds of the latest devices from Apple.

    The project involved coupling 1100 brand new Apple G5 towers side by side, making it the world's most powerful “homebuilt” system in history.

    The supercomputer is capable of 17.6 trillion floating point operations per second, with a combined storage capacity of 176 terabytes.

    “Each individual G5 is a dual processor, 2GHZ machine with 4GB of memory. So it's extremely fast,” Pat Arvin, Project Coordinator at Virginia Tech told the BBC.

    Cable links

    The network is knitted together using 2900 cables and operates at about 100 times the speed of an average corporate network.

    The main difficulty encountered by the group was ensuring the system’s stability.

    “A system of this size generally sees its best application in what is known as big science research; massive simulations, models, computational engineering systems” 

    Dr Varadarajan

    Srinidhi Varadarajan, the project's chief architect, was forced to write a special programme called Deja Vu to ensure that if an individual computer crashed in the middle of a calculation lasting weeks another computer would take over seamlessly.

    “This is pretty much like open heart surgery because you're working on a computer and moving an application while it still continues to run,” said Dr Varadarajan

    “You cannot stop the program, actually, and that's the speciality of this system.”

    Big Mac

    The machine, unofficially known as Big Mac, was constructed in only three months.

    In  order to ensure the right operating environment, the architects of the system had to solve the problem of high temperatures generated by so many computers being located in an enclosed environment.

    Running 1100 computers in a 3000-square-foot (280-sq-metres) area sends the air temperature well over 38 degrees Celsius.

    The heat is so intense that ordinary air conditioning units would not work. Instead, specialised heat exchange cooling units were built with a pipe running chilled water into the facility.

    “There are two chillers for this project,” explained Kevin Shinpaugh, Director of Cluster Computing.

    Speed imperative

    The next challenge was power supply related. The supercomputer uses the same amount of electricity as 3000 average sized homes.

    A speedy installation was essential because Virginia Tech had to comply with an October deadline set by the National Science Foundation.

    Missing that deadline would have meant automatic disqualification from the NSF's global supercomputer rankings, thereby denying the college any chance of competing for top
    scientific research projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

    “A system of this size generally sees its best application in what is known as big science research; massive simulations, models, computational engineering systems,” said Dr

    The college is offering people kits that explain how to set up a similar system.



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