September 17, 2002

Denmark Debian cluster serves as research tool <i>and</i> teaching tool

-By Grant Gross -

Linux clusters are often used in university settings to conduct computer-intensive research, but a school in Denmark is also using a Debian Linux cluster to teach students about computing.

Professor Brian Vinter's students at Syddansk Universitet (University of Southern Denmark) helped set up a 512-node cluster this summer. Researchers will use the cluster to map the pig genome and to do research related to quantum chemistry, solid state physics, and cellular biology.

Computer science students Anders Andersen and Lars Henriksen say the cluster provided some valuable hands-on experience. They and five other students made all 550-plus Ethernet cables by hand.

"First of all, it has taught me the color code of twisted-pair Ethernet
cables," Anderson jokes. "No, seriously, I have learned a lot about cluster hardware and
software together with the configuration of this (and their limits). It
has also taught me which tools to use, and which not to use, to optimize
cluster performance."

Anderson believes the experience may help him get a job working on clusters when he graduates. Some of the students are talking about starting a clustering firm for the European market.

Even though the students mainly provided the muscle for the project, Henriksen says the chance to watch and learn was valuable. "We have also been 'looking over the shoulder' of some very knowledgeable guys in planning, implementing and configuring a very large installation," he says. "We have seen 'the suits' (computer systems vendors) in action, configured the machines, investigated the software (from kernel hacking
to batch scheduling), and learned about quality tests -- all things that aren't taught in a normal class."

The cluster, which went online in August, is made up of 512 HP computers, each with an Intel Pentium 4 2 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM. Money to set up the cluster came from the Danish Center for Scientific Computing as part of a national push to create more computing power in Denmark. The cluster's two-teraflop output would rank it in the top 20 most powerful clusters in the world in Top500.org's June report.

Maintaining the cluster will take one person working a little more than half time. The reason the team used Debian is because it was the maintainer's preference.

While the students didn't get graded for the project, they give it high marks.
"Some things requires hands on approach, and that's what we got," Henriksen says. "Teamwork with some very smart people on a project this big is bound to teach you something, that one can use in a real-world
(read: job) context. And of course we had lots of fun working with the
friends in the rainy part of the summer."

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