January 9, 2002

New company markets 'personal' Linux cluster in a tower-sized box

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

Several initiatives in the past year have focused on bringing high-powered Linux clusters to businesses. Now comes a Linux cluster machine designed to be plugged into a workstation or laptop box and fit under your desk. A young company called Rocketcalc is pitching its Redstone desktop tower-sized box as a personal cluster computer.

Bryan Lewis, principle partner at Rocketcalc, says the company has been marketing the Redstone machines to universities, where math and science researchers can use the power of a Linux cluster, and to graphics and engineering related businesses. But Lewis acknowledges that some individuals have expressed interest in the Redstone, with a stock configuration cost ranging from $4,500 to $6,500.

Asked if he was getting interest from the stereotypical teenage geek, Lewis joked: "Man, if I had $6,500 to blow and I was 20, I don't know. I guess there are kids like that out there. I have talked to enthusiasts who are serious programmers by day and like to screw around with stuff in their homes."

Lewis does expect that the Redstone, along with pumped up software, can in the long run give people like amateur digital video creators the same power that Hollywood studios have. "I can see a day when people can do serious digital video production at home or in a small studio, with things like our little clusters," he says. "I can see a day when there's cheaper video editing packages out there, and people can do stuff that's pretty amazing."

After creating the clustering machine model, Rocketcalc is now focusing more on creating software that individuals can use with the cluster. A download of Octaves, Lewis' message passing library based on GNU Octave, is available for download at the Rocketcalc site, and his team is working on plug-ins to The Gimp that will allow clusters to work with image manipulations.

The Redstone is designed to plug into a Linux workstation or laptop and give an individual the power of a cluster, unlike the rackmount clusters found in some corporations or universities or the old style Beowulf clusters made up of a bunch of networked PCs. The company also makes a stand-alone model that works without being plugged into another computer. Lewis and partner Sami Mkaddem, both mathematicians from academia, founded Rocketcalc in 2000 to build the personal Linux cluster.

"We thought there might be a niche for something that would be more suitable for an office," says Lewis, who was introduced to Linux clusters as a graduate student in math at Kent State University. "Nobody's going to put a rackmount by their desk. We designed these machines based on something we thought would be nifty. A scientist or engineer or artist who has some pretty significant computational problems to run, but not something that would require a huge cluster, could just hook it up to their workstation, put it under their desk, and crank."

The Redstone, which weighs less than 50 pounds and is 17 by 11 by 19.5 inches, features eight system mainboards with Intel Pentium IIIs or Celerons and up to eight gigabytes of PC-133 SDRAM. It runs on Motor, Rocketcalc's version of embedded Linux based on Lineo's embedded software and other Open Source tools, and the machine features the Rocketcalc Houston interface for system monitoring, power control and cluster management.

The cluster machine was announced early in December, and Lewis' team, which now includes three full-time employees and three part-timers, has been working on Redstone and the related software for about a year. Rocketcalc also has a manufacturing partner for the product.

"We've been trying to build things up in a very conservative and manageable way to try to avoid the flame-outs a lot of other high-tech firms have been experiencing in the last year or two," Lewis says. "We've been targeting people in academia right now."

Although the product was announced with little fanfare just over a month ago, Lewis says he's gotten hundreds of inquires about Redstone. His company has sold some of the machines to universities near Rocketcalc's Richfield, Ohio, home base, he says.

Lewis says Linux was the natural choice to power the cluster machine because "it's what people have been using to do clustering for longer and more with more wide-spread applications." Linux has more mature clustering software than Windows or other flavors of Unix, he says, and out-performs Windows for clustering.

The Rocketcalc team thought long and hard about using embedded Linux, instead of the traditional full versions of Linux used in Beowulf clusters, Lewis adds. "Our machines really are not at all targeted at at Web farms or server farms for databases, or anything like that. We're really focused on computational problems where processing power is what matters, not disk space."

In fact, one version of the Redstone doesn't even have a hard disk. It simply plugs into a Linux workstation or laptop and provides the extra computational power. The Motor embedded Linux distribution is stored on 256 megabytes of Flash RAM in that model.

"We stepped back and looked at a typical Linux distribution ... and there's just all this crap in there that we don't need and doesn't help us at all for clustering. So we decided, 'Let's step back and make a distribution that's basically geared to providing the basic network services necessary to clusters and solve computational problems."

Lineo has what Lewis calls a "beautiful" embedded utilities package called Busy Box, and Rocketcalc built on it to create its Motor embedded Linux OS. "We just put together all these tools that were already out there into this nice, tight little distribution," he says. "The whole thing only takes up about 12 megabytes."

Using this limited Linux distribution, with its programs all compiled statically, also avoids library incompatibilities when a user hooks the Redstone up to a Linux workstation, Lewis says. "We wanted to be able to mount as much of the file system on their workstation as possible. You can plug one of our machines into your notebook or your workstation and use all the software that's already on the machine."

Motor's software is all already available under the GNU GPL or a BSD license, and Lewis says he plans to offer the company's Houston interface as a download under the GPL once his team gets caught up on documenting the code. The source code is available on the CDs that come with the Redstone.

Other Linux clustering products announced in the past year include the IBM eServer cluster and the
Open Source Cluster Applications Resources software.


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