Swinburne Linux supercomputer tastes Apple RAID

SYDNEY (10/20/2003) - Swinburne University of Technology's Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing has implemented a fiber-channel RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) storage system for its 130-node cluster.

The cluster -- a mixture of 100 Dell dual Xeon servers at Swinburne in Victoria and 30 Dell Xeon servers at Parkes in New South Wales -- is used for processing the center's astrophysical data.

The center's director, Professor Matthew Bailes, said the supercomputer had a low level of storage compared with its processing power.

"We looked at upgrading the supercomputer but that would have been too expensive for what we needed," Professor Bailes said. "Although we don't have much to do with Apple, after seeing its new Xserve RAID storage device we decided to evaluate it." After performing an initial evaluation of a 2.52T bytes Xserve RAID, Bailes was happy with its performance and price.

"The Xserve RAID is the cheapest system of its type and none of the other mainstream players have a comparable price," he said. "Also, at around 100M bps (bits per second) read and write to disk, it is faster than our SCSI system which has an I/O of 50M bps." The center purchased six Xserve RAID systems with a combined storage capacity of 13.2T bytes for "around A$100,000 (US$68,000) including education and volume discounts".

"Four of the units are in Swinburne, one is at the Parkes radio telescope, and the other is at the Narrabri (NSW) radio telescope," Bailes said. "The fact that the disks are ATA means they are a lot cheaper than SCSI." Apple's Xserve RAID storage system uses 7200 RPM ATA/100 disks, each with a capacity of 180G bytes. With 14 disk bays in each Xserve RAID, the total storage capacity is 2.52T bytes but is less if used as a RAID device.

"We run ours with RAID level 5 which enables redundancy but one disk must be used for parity data making the useable storage about 2.2T bytes," Bailes said. "The disks are hot-swappable and have a fiber channel interface to server." Interestingly, the center's supercomputer, which runs Linux, experienced no difficulty in setting up the Xserve RAID.

"Apple was a bit sceptical as to whether or not it would work with Linux," he said. "We tried it with Linux, and after installing the fiber channel card and recompiling the kernel we had it up and running in about 15 minutes. The Java-based XServe management tool tends to work better on OS X than Linux and one utility only worked on a Mac." According to Bailes, the center records 13T bytes of data per day, which gets processed in real time down to 30G bytes and then compressed further to 3K bytes.

"It would be nice to see Apple expand the capacity of the disks inside the Xserve RAID to 300G bytes," Bailes said.

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