FEATURES & COMMENTARY
Moscow, IDAHO — The age of high-performance computing once symbolized by supercomputers costing millions of dollars apiece, may be closer to home than we think, a University of Idaho computer scientist says.
Robert Heckendorn, an assistant professor of computer science, will oversee students enrolling in a directed study class that will design and build a Beowulf cluster computer this fall. The new supercomputer is one of a class of low cost, high performance computers built with off-the-shelf components.
“We probably won’t recognize them when they do go into use,” said Heckendorn. Homes may be equipped with versions to customize heating or cooling systems, lights and appliances.
But until then, the new system the class will help design and build has the feel of the earliest days of home computing, when hobbyists worked in their basements or garages to assemble their own computers. “This is like building a hot rod,” he said.
The students will work with a budget of $44,000, developing specifications for the equipment and recommending software and hardware for the supercomputer.
The budget comes from a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant won by James A. Foster, a UI associate professor of computer science, and a team of UI researchers to expand the university’s expertise in bioinformatics.
“The students will put together a proposal as a class and make a recommendation about how to proceed. I will make the final decision but I don’t want to steer the students by talking about it right now. I have an idea of the direction we’ll take, but I may be wrong,” he said.
The students will work on every step of the project, from determining the requirements the supercomputer must meet, though the purchase, assembly, software selection and installation. “They are involved from start to finish. It should be a great experience for them,” Heckendorn added.
Beowulf cluster computers are the rage in high-performance computing these days. The clusters of computer processing and memory chips that form their heart can be assembled relatively cheaply from simple components. Off-the-shelf computers built for the consumer market can do the job.
“It’s commodity computing. If you can only buy commodity computers and hook them together with the right stuff in the right way, you can get supercomputing power,” he said. Although multi-million dollar specialty supercomputers still dominate the high end of the market, Beowulf-style supercomputers are gaining.
The class already has an experienced hand on the roster: Andrew Shewmaker, a UI senior from Kimberly, Idaho, studying computer science. “As far as I know he’s the only one in the class who has worked with one,” Heckendorn said.
Shewmaker learned about Beowulf supercomputing while interning at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory during the past three summers. “They’ve built two Beowulfs in the last two years,” he said.
Although he wasn’t involved in building the clusters, Shewmaker said, “I did get to help administer and use them.”
“I am extremely excited about this project,” Shewmaker said. “I am interested in building a Beowulf because I have read tons of information about it on the Internet and in books but I have yet to apply what I have read.”
The University of Idaho was the source for this article.