University aims to build supercomputer in one day

FRAMINGHAM (04/02/2004) - Students and staff at the University of San Francisco are hoping to make history Saturday by creating the world's first supercomputer that will be networked together on the day using an anticipated 1,000 laptop and desktop PCs brought in by volunteers.

USF hopes the so-called Flashmob 1 supercomputer will break into the Top 500 fastest supercomputers in the world, a list that's currently led by Japan's Earth Simulator. Flashmob's success will depend on how quickly it calculates Linpack, a set of linear equation benchmarks that is used by all Top 500 hopefuls. The next Top 500 list, which is updated twice a year, is expected to be unveiled in June.

However, even if Flashmob is successful, it is unlikely that it will actually make it on the list because the Top 500 compilers prefer to include supercomputers that are running at the time the list is published. Flashmob 1 will be dismantled as soon as it has finished running the benchmarks.

Erich Strohmaier, a co-founder of the Top 500 list and a computer scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., said: "If (Flashmob) get a measurement done, which would be large enough to qualify them, we are going to mention them and where they would be."

Flashmob's organizers say it doesn't matter if their supercomputer doesn't get on the official list. "The goal is to show that we can put together a temporary supercomputer that can compete with the expensive computers on the Top 500 list," said Greg Benson, assistant professor of Computer Science at USF. "We see our work as establishing a new form of supercomputing that is accessible to anyone who wants to run parallel computing problems." The organizers hope that the event will help dispel the myth that clustering is only available to large research organizations that can afford multi-million-dollar systems, and that it will encourage others to set up their own Flashmobs to work on ad-hoc queries.

Flashmob is the brainchild of a group of graduate students at USF studying supercomputers. Their hope was to build a supercomputer that would break into the Top 500, but they concluded that they would be about 100 computers short of having a good shot. But then one student, John Witchel, came up with the idea of posting an ad on Craigslist.com, a popular online bulletin board for the San Francisco Bay Area community, calling for 100 to volunteer and help out. Thus the idea of Flashmob computing was born.

Benson is confident that volunteers will bring 1,000 systems on Saturday to the university's gym, where the benchmarking will take place, but he estimates that 1,200 will be required to ensure a place in the Top 500. He expects more people than those already registered will turn up on the day. Volunteers will be provided with a CD-ROM that will boot up from their systems. The CD contains a Linux-based operating system, configuration and the benchmarking software.

The university will run two benchmarks during the day, and the best will be forwarded for inclusion in the Top 500.

Flashmob 1 is not without some big-name backers. Among the slew of vendors sponsoring the event is Foundry Networks Inc., which will provide the all-important network infrastructure. The computers will be connected via a 10 Gigabit Ethernet backbone that will use four Foundry FastIron 1500 Layer 2/3 modular network switches. Each switch will be loaded with a two-port 10 Gigabit Ethernet module, and with six 48-port 10/100 modules, supporting the clients.

Other sponsors include Hewlett-Packard Co., which provided funds for T-shirts and offered the services of two of its supercomputing experts, and the National Electronic Gaming League, which will set up gaming stations to help volunteers while away the hours while their computers are hard at work crunching numbers.

Volunteers will also get a chance to hear big-name speakers, including Jim Gray, distinguished engineer in Microsoft Corp.'s Scalable Servers Research Group; William Thigpen, chief of the engineering branch of NAS (NASA Advanced Supercomputing Division); and Horst Simon, a director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.

"Flashmob's challenge is to put this together in a short time," said Nan Boden, executive vice president of Myricom, maker of the Myrinet interconnect software that is used in 39 percent of the Top 500 supercomputers, and a Flashmob sponsor. "Others (in the Top 500) work weeks, months to configure their systems. Time will be Flashmob's biggest risk."

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