Assessing the Utility of a Personal Desktop Cluster

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Department of Computer Science, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University


The computer workstation, introduced by Sun Microsystems in 1982, was the tool of choice for scientists and engineers as an interactive computing environment for the development of scientific codes. However, by the mid-1990s, the performance of workstations began to lag behind high-end commodity PCs. This, coupled with the disappearance of BSD-based operating systems in workstations and the emergence of Linux as an opensource operating system for PCs, arguably led to the demise of the workstation as we knew it. Around the same time, computational scientists started to leverage PCs running Linux to create a commodity-based (Beowulf) cluster that provided dedicated compute cycles, i.e., supercomputing for the rest of us, as a cost-effective alternative to large supercomputers, i.e., supercomputing for the few. However, as the cluster movement has matured, with respect to cluster hardware and open-source software, these clusters have become much more like their large-scale supercomputing brethren — a shared datacenter resource that resides in a machine room. Consequently, the above observations, when coupled with the ever-increasing performance gap between the PC and cluster supercomputer, provide the motivation for a personal desktop cluster workstation — a turnkey solution that provides an interactive and parallel computing environment with the approximate form factor of a Sun SPARCstation 1 “pizza box” workstation. In this paper, we present the hardware and software architecture of such a solution as well as its prowess as a developmental platform for parallel codes. In short, imagine a 12-node personal desktop cluster that achieves 14 Gflops on Linpack but sips only 150-180 watts of power, resulting in a performance-power ratio that is over 300% better than our test SMP platform.



Parallel computation