January 26, 2001

Linux 'Supercomputer on a CD'

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -
Imagine your garage filled with dozens of computers all linked together in a super-powerful Linux cluster. You still have to supply your own hardware, but the geek equivalent of a Mustang GT will become easier to set up and maintain, thanks to new software to be demonstrated at LinuxWorld next week.

The Open Source Cluster Applications Resources (OSCAR) software, being developed by the Open Cluster Group, will allow a non-expert Linux user to set up a cluster in a matter of hours, instead of the days of work it now can take an experienced network administrator to piece one together. Developers of OSCAR are saying it'll be as easy as installing most software. Call it a "supercomputer on a CD."

"We've actually taken it to the point where a typical high school kid who has a little bit of experience with Linux and can get their hands on a couple of extra boxes could set up a cluster at home," says Stephen L. Scott, project leader at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of several organizations working on OSCAR. "You can have a little supercomputer in your garage."

And why, exactly, would you want one? Why do middle-aged bald guys test drive Porsches? Because they're curious, and for the bragging rights, of course.

Actually, universities and businesses use Linux clusters as an alternative to expensive supercomputers for high-level computing needs, such as physics or chemistry research. Karen Green, a spokeswoman with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications [NSCA] at the University of Illinois, another partner in the project, says small universities and businesses with heavy-duty computing needs such as data mining could benefit from the OSCAR project.

The scientific world has been on the Linux cluster "bandwagon" for years, Green says, and now people in the private sector are becoming interested.

Scott adds: "One of the reasons why we decided we needed to do something like this is, we were fielding a number of calls from universities or businesses saying, 'We want to build a cluster, what do we have to do?' Everyone could plug the hardware together -- that wasn't the difficult part -- a typical eighth- or ninth-grader could plug one together.

"The difficulty was that you had to then go out, download the operating system, shove it across all these machines, download all the tools, download the security, download the application component, your schedulers, then you had to build each of these individually... It took a great deal of time and a great deal of knowledge."

OSCAR, also the name of a ham radio satellite, eliminates a lot of redundant steps that were ripe for human error, Scott says. "The ultimate goal is to have a single-click installation, but that's a little beyond the technology at this point."

Open Cluster Group, which includes IBM, Intel, Dell, SGI, MSC.Software, and Veridian, has been working on the project for more than a year. A developer's release of OSCAR will be demonstrated at Intel's booth at LinuxWorld, and IBM representatives will give a presentation during the expo. Each of those partners has contributed pieces of OSCAR.

Included in the package are the Portable Batch System, which queues computing jobs for running on a cluster; a Parallel Virtual Machine, which allows parallel applications to run on clusters; MPICH, a tool that allows Message Passing Interface codes to run on many
high-end computing systems; and Cluster Command and Control, a suite of tools to simplify the use and administration of clusters.

The demo version of OSCAR is a developer's release because the teams are still debugging some of the code, Scott says. "The idea is to get it out there, get some people using it, get a little bit of the Open Source community effort behind it, and have people help us find things we may have missed."

Green expects a downloadable version of OSCAR 1.0 to be available in about a month, and Scott says the group is already thinking about OSCAR II and planning a conference on clusters for the future.

"OSCAR was the first volley," he says. "So now we're looking at where can we go to make clusters easier, where can we go to make them more scalable, what other tools can we offer?

"OSCAR and the Open Cluster Group is not something we plan to do this year and then throw it away and the Web links go stale."

The developer's version of OSCAR supports Linux clusters using Intel IA-32
processors. The full release of OSCAR will also support Intel's new Itanium processor after summer 2001.

While NCSA's Green thinks individual interest in OSCAR may be limited at the moment, she points to her organization's development in 1993 of Mosaic, an early Web browser that introduced the Internet to a general audience. OSCAR could do the same for supercomputing.

"We're very future-oriented," she says. "We're looking at five years down the road. A lot of the things we're researching now, we want them to get out into general use."

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