A Coming of Age for Beowulf-Class Computing
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Beowulf-class systems along with other forms of PC clustered systems have matured to the point that they are becoming the strategy of choice for some areas of high performance applications. A Beowulf system is a cluster of mass market COTS personal computers interconnected by means of widely available local area network (LAN) technology. Beowulf software is based on open source code Unix-like operating systems that, in a majority of cases, is Linux. The API for Beowulf is based on message passing semantics and mechanisms including explicit models such as PVM and MPI or implicit models such as BSP of HPF. Since its introduction in 1994, Beowulf-class computing has gone through five generations of PCs from multiple microprocessor vendors including the Intel x86 family, DEC’s Alpha, and the PowerPC from IBM and Motorola. Originally, Beowulfs were implemented as small clusters in the range of 4 to 32 nodes. Larger clusters of 48 to 96 processors were deployed two and a half years ago. Today there are many systems of 100 to 300 processors with systems of over a thousand processors in the planning stage for implementation over the next year.
The earliest Beowulf systems had a peak floating point performance of approximately 320 Mflops sustaining approximately 70 Mflops on floating point intensive problems. By the third generation, peak performance systems of 3.2 Gflops were delivering sustained performance of 1.2 Gflops on non-trivial real world applications. A year later, larger systems were reported sustaining performance in excess of 10 Gflops. Shortly thereafter, the first Beowulfs were credited with being among the 500 largest computers in the world. In the last two years, Beowulf-class systems were recognized as providing the best price-performance of general-purpose high-end systems by winning the Gordon Bell Prize for supercomputer price-performance two years in a row. From a few experimental systems four years ago, many hundreds of systems have been deployed across the nation and around the world with as many as a thousand such systems operational today.
From this experience and level of acceptance, it is clear that Beowulf-class systems are having a significant impact on the field of high-end computing. But the value of this technology extends beyond simply the numbers of systems deployed. These systems are enabling applications work that might not have been conducted otherwise or would have been done at a substantially lower level. Also they are providing an exceptional vehicle for educational programs in parallel computing hardware, software, and parallel programming techniques, even down to the high school level. Many people are entering the field of parallel computing through the opportunity door opened by the availability of Beowulf systems. The roles and range of this class of systems are proving highly diverse; more than was originally imagined by those conducting the earliest path-finding work in this area.