Beowulfs can compete with Supercomputers [was Beowulf: A theorical approach]

David S. Greenberg dsg at
Thu Jun 22 08:45:53 PDT 2000

I'm going to use Mr. Ruiz' question as a springboard for a little pontificating
and some conference advertising so caveat lire.
I paraphrase Mr. Ruiz' question: Can commodity clusters compete with
supercomputers on a performance basis and not just on a price-performance
basis?  Some of us who believe that the answer is yes have been promoting the
idea through the Extreme Linux mailing list, website (,
and workshops.  The challenge is to answer many of Mr. Ruiz' questions and more
and when necessary to work together to fill in missing pieces.

Now a brief digression for a conference advertisement.  The Extreme Linux Track
will be part of the Atlanta Linux Showcase and Conference,, from October 12-14, 2000.   The refereed papers
portion of the track has been determined but we are leaving two 90 minute
sessions open for participation.  The first of these sessions will be devoted
to working cluster updates.  Everyone is encourage to send us one-page
formatted descriptions of their cluster (typically a black-and-white picture
with text telling how big it has grown and what cool things it has done over
the last year - sort of a Christmas/New Years card from your cluster).  We will
publish the one-pagers in the proceedings and give as many folks as possible
(in order of submission) a few minutes to present to the workshop.  Similarly
there will be a session for one-page descriptions of applications.  Here we'd
like to hear about how well your application runs on clusters, about what you'd
like most to have added to clusters, and  about comparisons with runs on
classic supercomputers.  Send your one-pagers to me, dsg at, with the
subject, EL2000 one-pager.  Remember, first come first serve.

Back to the question at hand, how to make a supercomputer from commodity
parts.  Many of us have determined that not only should it be possible to
"build your own" supercomputer but it is likely to be the only way to do so
since "supercomputer" companies are quickly disappearing.  There are several
(1) Design it yourself and build it yourself.  The example I'm most familiar
with is the CPlant project at Sandia (  Based on the
success of the ASCI Red 9000+ processor Intel machine the Sandia team set out
to duplicate/surpass its performance, usability, and extensibility with
high-end but "commodity" parts.  They chose Alpha processors and Myrinet
interconnect.  They have been a regular in the top third of the top 500 for
several years and continue to grow bigger each year.
2) Customize a stock design and get someone else to build it for you.  There
are several small to mid-size companies which specialize in this.  I've been
meaning to update my list (perhaps some readers will help).  The list includes
at least Altatech, Atlantec, Aspen, DCG,HPTi, Paralogic, TurboLinux, VALinux.
3) Convince a vendor to make a product out of the idea.  The two biggest
examples of this are the Compaq SC series which clusters 4-way Alpha boxes
using the Quadrics interconnect and the IBM move toward Linux clusters, see in
particular the Roadrunner cluster at UNM, and the Chiba
City cluster at Argonne,

A big advantage of clusters is that it is possible to customize to your exact
needs.  Of course, as is often mentioned on these lists, you must first
understand your needs which can take some time.  The range of choices can
sometimes seem overwhelming but the nice thing is that there are many solutions
which will be in some sense 90% optimal.  The real trick is to pick something
reasonable and get it up and running your applications while it is still "hot"
hardware.  You can modify and upgrade later as you learn more about your needs.

One note of interest is that the cost of a supercomputer use to be mostly in
the processors.  Then the cost moved to the memory.  We are currently seeing a
move to putting money in the interconnect (both the memory to processor bus and
the internode network).  Each such change in focus is difficult for buyers to
make since it seems like "too much is being spent on specialized hardware".
My advise is to go with the trend.
Two major software issues for really large machines are system
administration/fault tolerance and parallel IO.  Don't miss the panels and
papers on these topics at the Extreme Linux Track.


Nacho Ruiz wrote:

> Hi,
> I'm doing my final year project and I'm writting about the Beowulf project
> an the Beowulf clusters.
> I've been reading several documents about the beowulf clusters, but I would
> like to ask all of you some questions about them.
> As I've seen the main objective behind any Beowulf cluster is the
> price/performance tag, specially when compared to supercomputers. But as
> network hardware and commodity systems are becoming faster and faster
> (getting closer to GHz and Gigabit speeds), could you think on competting
> directly with supercomputers?
> As I see it the Beowulf cluster idea could be based in the distributed
> computign and the parallel computing: you put more CPUs to get more speedup,
> but as you can't have all the CPUs in the same machine you use several. So
> the Beowulf cluster could fit in between the distributed computing and the
> supercomputers (vetorial computers, parallel computers,..etc). You have
> advantages from both sides: parallel programming and high scalability; but
> you also have several drawbacks: mainly interconection problems. Do you
> think that with 10 Gb conections (OC-192 bandwith), SMP in chip (Power 4)
> and  massive primary and secondary memory devices at low cost, you could
> have a chance to beat most of the traditional supercomputers? or is not your
> "goal"?
> And about the evolution of the Beowulf clusters, do you all follow a kind of
> guideness or the project have divided in several flavors and objectives?
> Are the objectives of the beggining the same as today or now you plan to
> have something like a "super SMP computer" in a distributed way (with good
> communications times). I've seen that a lot of you are focusing in the GPID
> and whole machine idea, do you think that is reachable? What are the main
> objectives vs the MPI/PVM message passing idea?
> And what about shared memory (in the HD level or the RAM level), do you take
> advantage of having this amount  of resouces?
> Is this idea trying to reach the objective of making parallel programs
> "independent" to the programmer? I mean, that instead of having to program
> having in mind that you are using a parallel machine you can program in a
> "normal" way and the compiler will divide/distribute the code over the
> cluster. Is this reachable or just a dream? Is somebody working on this?
> And what about the administration of a cluster. Having all the machine of
> the cluster under control, so you can know which are avaliable to send some
> work, is an hazarous task but necessary. Is not as easy as in a SMP machine
> where you know or assume that all the CPUs inside are working, in a cluster
> you can't do that as the CPU might work but the HD, NIC or memory may fail.
> How much computational time do you spend in this task? There's somebody
> working in a better way to manage with this?
> I know that sometime ago HP had a machine woth several faulty processors
> working and achiving high computational speeds without any error. They used
> some kind of  "control algorithm" that manages to use only the good CPUs. Do
> you have something like this or there is no point? Does it make sense?
> That's all for now, thanks to all of you.
> If you know of some sources where I can get more information, please let me
> know.
> Nacho Ruiz.
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