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Open-source supercomputer beats Cray

March 16, 1999
Web posted at: 10:32 a.m. EST (1532 GMT)

by Ed Scannell


(IDG) -- Trying to burnish its engineering image as well as demonstrate the technical possibilities of Linux, IBM showed an "open-source supercomputer" at the LinuxWorld Expo, held earlier this month, that was built around a cluster of Pentium II Xeon chips.

Using a subset of the Beowulf clustering technology, 17 of IBM's Netfinity servers containing 36 Pentium II chips and running an off-the-shelf copy of Linux matched the scalability and performance of a Cray supercomputer. The IBM system executed a computer graphics-rendering application called the PovRay benchmark.

The PovRay benchmark is intended to serve as a guide for the relative mathematical performance of a wide variety of chips, systems, and compilers. It is a ray-tracing, image-rendering application with which a picture or image can be inserted in a movie such as Toy Story or Antz and subsequently be rendered displaying all of the shadows and the rays of light falling relative to that picture or image.

"It is a big computational job. Ten years ago it would take a [Digital Equipment] VAX [minicomputer] 10 or 15 minutes to do. A Cray can do it in 3 seconds today," said Tom Figgatt, IBM's e-business manager, in Somers, N.Y.

During the demonstration, IBM's Linux-based supercomputer matched the current benchmark record of 3 seconds, which was set by the Cray T3t-900-AC64. That mark had surpassed what is now the second-fastest time of 9 seconds.

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The message IBM was trying to convey to users is that Linux has some innate capabilities for linking together parallel computers that are not only working in clusters but also working robustly using existing hardware and software off the shelf or from the Web.

"I think we showed how easily Linux clusters together and allows you to link multiple systems readily so you can spread your workload across multiple systems," Figgatt said.

In addition to the 17 servers, IBM used a 100MB Ethernet network and hub to connect the servers, and a piece of parallel computing software to ensure the system's computations connected. As for the copy of Red Hat's Linux, IBM purchased it at a local Barnes & Noble the day before the demonstration.

Although the demonstration of the application would be considered exotic by most Fortune 1000 companies, IBM officials said they believe many commercial accounts need this level of computing power for many of the company's existing and upcoming electronic-commerce applications.

The advantage of the IBM-based system over the Cray, of course, is its more attractive price performance, according to company officials. The Netfinity/Linux benchmark was executed on approximately $150,000 worth of equipment, while the cost of the Cray was $5.5 million, IBM's officials said.

IBM also used the demonstration to flex the muscles of its X-architecture features and capabilities, which now are included in all of IBM's servers up to the mainframe-class machines. For example, during one of the rendering demonstrations IBM took one of the servers offline. The rendering screen missed several pixels during the fail-over process, but it filled them in by the time the rendering was complete.

Ed Scannell is an InfoWorld editor at large.

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