April 1, 2004

FlashMob I supercomputing event set for Saturday at USF

Author: Chris Preimesberger

SAN FRANCISCO -- This is going to make a very interesting sight: hundreds, perhaps more than 1,000, computers of all shapes and sizes gathered together to run a benchmark in one big auditorium, interconnected via a local area network to in effect become one of the world's 500 most powerful supercomputers. What a monumental tangle of wires that's going to be!

The first-ever FlashMob I is scheduled for Saturday at the Koret Center gym on the campus of the University of San Francisco. It promises to be an all-day event to remember.

Not too late to join up

For NewsForge readers in the Bay Area and Northern California regions, it's not too late to sign up and participate. Late registrations are quite welcome, but be aware that most of your Saturday (from mid-morning to at least 6 p.m.) will be required to participate. Then again, how often does one get the chance to join in a major-league computing event like this?

The idea: A FlashMob computer, unlike an ordinary cluster, is strictly temporary and organized on-the-fly for the purpose of working toward a single goal. It will become at least one student's thesis; the results of FlashMob I will be submitted for inclusion in the Top 500 Supercomputers listing. Numerous academic journal articles are expected to be published based on the results.

Organizers will provide all participants with a derivative of Knoppix Linux called Morphix on a CD-ROM, from which they will boot. Knoppix, in its full rendition, includes not only the the operating system but also a collection of GNU/Linux software, automatic hardware detection, and support for many graphics cards, sound cards, SCSI, and USB devices and other peripherals.

"We're not supporting a whole lot more than NICs (at the event)," said Peter Pacheco, a professor in the USF Department of Computer Science. "We want all the system's resources reserved for the computation."

Nothing will need to be installed on a hard disk. Because the software boots from the CD-ROM and runs entirely from memory, hard drives will never be touched.

Once the benchmark begins, no one will be allowed to unplug his or her computer until it ends. Since everyone's computer will be connected and running as one, the entire system will fail if the daisy chain is broken.

"At this point (on Thursday), we really don't have any idea how many computers we will be linking up on Saturday, but we have some general goals we'd like to meet," said Pacheco. "If it turns out we have a lot of low-end laptops, then we'd like to have about 1,200 (units). If we can get more of the more powerful laptops, then we think we'd need maybe 600 to 700."

Hundreds already registered

As of Thursday, several hundred people had signed up to participate, including yours truly. We'll have a full report for Monday here on NewsForge.

Some institutions have come through with blocks of 100 desktop computers each, such as eLoan and USF itself, Pacheco said. "We'd like to be in a position to pick and choose as many computers as we can," Pacheco said, "so we can have as much computing power as possible."

The computers will run the gamut from blades to full-fledged towers to a few rack-mounted units, Pacheco said. "It's conceivable that we might have about half the computers be desktops," he said. "Our goal is to make sure every port is taken."

Because each computer will be booting up from a CD, the possibility of circulating viruses will be nil, because no hard drives will be used. Even if there were a virus or worm on one of the discs, it would have no place to reside on the network.

Once the supercomputer is up and running, the USF organizers will execute the Linpack Benchmark, which is a measure of a computer's floating-point rate of execution. This is determined by running a computer program that solves a dense system of linear equations. The benchmarking will take several hours to complete, from about 11 a.m.to 6 p.m.

FlashMob I is designed to be a family-friendly type of event, with refreshments, games for kids, and gifts for participants. There also will be 10 free informational computer workshops, with topics such as "What Supercomputers Still Can't Do" and "The Amazing History of Supercomputing."

For more information on the event, see this FAQ on the FlashMob site.

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