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July 29, 2010

HPC Startup Takes a Shine to Lustre

by Michael Feldman

Lustre, the much-beloved open-source file system technology used by many of the top supercomputers in the world, has a new friend. Actually a whole new company. Whamcloud, a venture-funded startup based in upscale Danville, California, came out of hiding on Wednesday and announced its intentions to help carry the Lustre torch forward on Linux.

Right now Lustre could use a champion. The technology has been passed around a lot since it was originally developed in 1999 by Peter Braam at Carnegie Mellon University. Braam later founded Cluster File Systems (CFS), which released Lustre 1.0 in 2003. Sun Microsystems acquired the technology, along with the CFS engineers in 2007. Of course, by then, Sun was a sinking ship, leading to Oracle’s acquisition of the company in 2010, with Lustre in tow.

That’s when the HPC community started getting nervous. Oracle was never an HPC organization, and from all outward signs (or lack thereof), is not likely to become one. The company has apparently maintained a Lustre team, however, and plans (PDF) to continue hosting the software for the open source Lustre community. But paid support for Lustre 2.0 will be limited to Oracle systems only. Worse yet, it looks like ZFS (an advanced 128-bit file system developed by Sun) will not be ported to Linux, leaving Lustre to rely on the OS’s less-capable extended (ext) file system technology.
Enter Whamcloud. The company intends to step into the void left by Oracle and advance the Lustre technology for high performance computing, giving some hope that the file system technology has a viable future in supercomputing — and perhaps elsewhere. “High performance computing is suffering a little bit right now,” says Whamcloud CEO Brent Gorda. “There are always performance bottlenecks everywhere, but the file system is a critical one that is the Achilles Heel in many cases.”

I got a chance to talk with the new CEO about the company’s plans and his expectations for the business. Gorda, who up until a couple of weeks ago was Deputy for Advanced Technology Projects at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), has managed to attract a couple of other well-known Lustre true-believers to the Whamcloud venture. Eric Barton, a lead engineer on the Lustre group at Oracle, is now Whamcloud’s CTO; and Robert Read, who lead the Lustre 2.0 project at Oracle, has signed on as the principal engineer.

According to Gorda, Whamcloud’s near-term plans are to take the lead in developing the Lustre code base for the Linux platform. His experience at LLNL, an early adopter and support of Lustre, should come in handy in this regard. The big machines at many Department of Energy (DOE) and supercomputing centers enthusiastically employ the open-source file system today. Currently, Lustre is used in 15 of the top 30 supercomputers in the world, and about half of all the top 500 systems. Because of the file system’s popularity at the DOE and NSF centers, Gorda believes they will be able to do contract Lustre work for the government labs, who are committed to using the technology on their big supercomputers — at least for the foreseeable future.

Gorda believes the software they intend to develop can live peaceably with the rest of the Lustre code that Oracle is developing for its commercial needs. He says they have no intention of forking the Lustre code base, and does not want to get into a wrestling match with Oracle (and would discourage anyone else from doing this either). “We will absolutely cooperate with Oracle and will do the development in such a way that it is beneficial to them and what they want to use Lustre for,” says Gorda. “But we want to make sure that any such development that we do will be in support of high performance computing.”

One immediate problem that Gorda thinks the HPC-Lustre community needs to focus on is the replacement of ZFS (which will come to Lustre, but on Solaris and not Linux). The HPC community was rallying around ZFS since it represented the next-generation files systems technology, offering advanced features like end-to-end data integrity and software RAID. That capability is not available on Linux’s ext technology, even on the latest ext3 and ext4 file systems.

Further out, the Lustre technology will need to segue into exascale computing. Whamcloud won’t be able to do that alone, however. Scaling file system and I/O technology to exascale will take a concerted effort by the whole community. Gorda concedes that parallel file system technology for that level of computing may not be even be recognizable as Lustre in 10 years. But he is adamant that the community will want an open source solution, and Lustre is the best starting point available.

The other aspect to Whamcloud is implied in its name. Gorda believes Lustre (and parallel file system technology, in general) has significant application to cloud computing. From his perspective, the cloud is another kind of high-end computing platform that has a strong resemblance to high performance computing, especially in its needs for a scalable file system. Gorda admits the company’s strategy is not completely fleshed out yet in regard to this area (he’s only been the CEO for a week), but they have already had some discussions with a few cloud providers to get the ball rolling.

In the meantime, Whamcloud intends to add more staff and build a credible team for the kind of work the company has in its sights. So far, the startup has collected $10 million in venture capital to get the business off the ground, and probably wouldn’t mind attracting some additional funding. “We’re very adamant that the community needs to keep using this technology,” says Gorda, “as well as whatever comes after it.”