A different Big Mac index

FRAMINGHAM (11/07/2003) - Given my fondness for Apple Computer Inc. computers you knew I would eventually write about the Virginia Tech Mac-based supercomputer-on-the-cheap. I was waiting for some of the testing to be completed. Because the test numbers are beginning to come in, I guess it's time.

This is one heck of a system -- not the sort of thing that you would want in your den, but it looks quite useful for those into computational fluid dynamics.

To refresh your memory, Virginia Tech's Institute for Computational Science and Engineering (ICSE) in Blacksburg, already the home of more computing power than the average company, decided to try to join the ranks of the supercomputer elite. But the school wanted to do so with a total budget smaller than the annual power bill for the existing big guys.

After looking at various alternatives, including Advanced Micro Devices Inc. systems and systems based on IBM Corp. technology, the school had just about given up when Apple announced the new dual 2-GHz G5 processor desktop last June. A few days later, after a trip to Apple headquarters to convince the company that the school was serious, Virginia Tech ordered 1,100 systems via Apple's online store. Apple started delivering the machines Sept. 5, and a small army of Virginia Tech students and teachers worked around the clock to install and interconnect the machines.

A month later they were testing what might turn out to be one of the five most-powerful supercomputers in the world. Virginia Tech spent US$5.2 million on the Apple computers, Cisco System Inc. Gigabit Ethernet and Mellanox Technology Inc. InfiniBand switches, plus $2 million more on upgrading the building, installing a big Liebert Corp. uninterruptible power supply and a back-up generator. This is rather more than I spent on my last Apple PowerBook but a pittance compared with the $30 to $200 million that others have recently spent to join the same club.

This shows that stock high-end Apple computers can be cost/performance competitive with the best that any other company can offer and that the OSX operating system can be used for advanced clustering applications with minimal special software. I would expect that the next generation of Apple's X-Servers would be even better for this sort of thing because they are much smaller, and more can fit in a rack. Also, because Virginia Tech will publish all the designs and (hopefully if the school can deal with the patent issues) all of the software used, I would expect to see a bunch of these Mac clusters popping up in research institutions and Fortune 100 companies soon. Pundits have called the Virginia Tech machine Big Mac, although this Big Mac has special but not secret sauce. It will be good fodder for Apple's and -- because Apple uses IBM processor chips -- IBM's marketing departments.

Economists use the Big Mac Index to compare prices in different countries. The Big Mac might do the same for those comparing the costs of high-end computing. If so, it will not be good news for companies building traditional supercomputers.

Disclaimer: Being from Harvard, I would hasten to add that low cost is not the whole story. But the above is my observation, not the university's.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@sobco.com.

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