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Linux Focus: The Borg takes on NASA multi-processing

Cranfield University computer centre has developed a Linux-based system of networked Pentium II PCs to replace its decommissioned Cray mainframe.

Following the relegation of its Cray licence, the Centre built a network ‘supercomputer' made up of 16 machines each with a 300MHz Pentium II processor, 192MB RAM and a 1-Gigabyte hard disk. A further ‘master' PC features an 8GB hard disk.

Dubbed ‘the Borg' after the entity featured in Star Trek that constituted a single intellect by combining the minds of all the people it assimilated, the 17-PC network is configured similarly to NASA's ‘Beowulf' system. Initiated in the early 1990s, NASA sought with Beowulf to enable processing of large quantities of data in parallel using a network of relatively low cost PCs.

According to Peter Lister, systems and communications programmer at Cranfield, the Borg is a pilot project to take the Beowulf technology far into the university. "We have used a Cray J916 until now for many of our more mathematically intensive processing tasks. Our 3-year lease on the Cray has recently expired, however, and the machine has been decommissioned."

Not having a Cray left a big gap and as the university's processing requirements never reduce, it is hoped that a Beowulf-type system will fill the gap.

And, of course, it runs on Linux.

"Unlike the Windows environment..., Linux doesn't swallow up huge amounts of our system resources," he said. "It's much more 'lean and mean' than Windows. It is also very well supported in the UK... not to mention a worldwide network of around six million enthusiastic users."

In some respects, the Borg offers Cranfield certain advantages over the Cray. It's a bit like comparing a double-decker bus with a Ferrari. The latter goes very fast, but if the job in hand is to get 80 people to work, one Ferrari will not do a very efficient job. Forty Ferraris would work, but would be expensive and hard to maintain. One double-decker bus is about right.

Although a Cray gives faster processing than a Pentium II, fully configuring it with gigabytes of memory would get very expensive. And for many problems, parallel application of 16 relatively slow 32-bit processors with 3Gb memory will outperform a Cray's 512Mb memory across four fast 64-bit processors.