Berkeley Lab Research News


Collaboration to Create Off-the-Shelf Parallel Supercomputing Network

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By Jon Bashor,

August 18, 1997

BERKELEY, CA -- The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will join Intel Corp. and UC Berkeley in creating a new "system of computer systems" to carry out research and evaluate technologies for a new generation of supercomputers.

Called "Millennium," the three-year, $6 million project is aimed at allowing researchers in 17 different campus units to work locally on small clusters of computers, as well as tap into a much larger cluster which will be a campus-wide resource, to perform scientific research. Not only will individual departments have greater computing resources, but Millennium will create a campus-wide computational resource to support growing collaborations.

NERSC, which has established close research partnerships with Berkeley's Mathematics and Computer Science departments, will receive a cluster of Intel workstations under the agreement. NERSC's cluster will be used to test various applications and configurations as a possible computer architecture for the supercomputing center of the next century.

For its part, NERSC will "port," or adapt, sophisticated software tools from its library for use on the campus system. NERSC has a lot of specialized expertise not available on campus, according to Bill Saphir of NERSC's Future Technologies Group, including extensive experience in setting up and running large computer systems. The center, established in 1974, is currently home to six Cray supercomputers.

"This is precisely the kind of Lab-campus collaboration the Department of Energy envisioned when they decided to establish the NERSC program at Berkeley Lab," said Associate Lab Director William McCurdy, head of Computing Sciences at the Laboratory. "NERSC brings to Millennium a unique contribution of its staff and a select group of users from its national user community. Both of these groups have experience in working with new computer architectures -- like Millennium -- to make them productive scientific computing tools."

As an example of the collaboration, Millennium principal investigator James Demmel is a professor of computer science and mathematics at Cal with a joint appointment in the Lab's Future Technologies Group. Likewise for David Culler, who is chief architect of the Millennium system and a computer science professor with a joint appointment at the Lab. Conversely, NERSC Division Director Horst Simon also teaches computer sciences classes on campus.

"This is another success story for the NERSC Future Technologies Group," said Simon, who initiated this group about a year ago with the goal of facilitating collaboration with the UC Berkeley campus and industry. "What makes this project so compelling is that we've found an effective way to rapidly evaluate technologies such as Millennium for meeting DOE's future supercomputing needs."

The planned centerpiece of the Millennium technology is a 288-processor "network of workstations," which is a very large version of the smaller networks in campus departments and at NERSC. Together, the linked Millennium computers will have a computing capacity comparable to that of the most powerful supercomputers.

The Millennium system will be a massively parallel processor computer, but in a much different configuration than NERSC currently uses. Because the experimental system will be located so close to Berkeley Lab, NERSC staff will be able to evaluate its potential for meeting future supercomputing requirements by combining off-the-shelf components with specialized computer codes.

"One of the most exciting aspects of Millennium is the potential to demonstrate that you can take a large number of mass-market commodity PCs and networks, harness them together with some special software, and get a powerful supercomputer for less than the current prices of supercomputers," Saphir said. "People have tried for years to do this, but no one has done it convincingly, and with the rock-solid reliability we need for the production computers at NERSC."

Millennium is one component of Intel's Technology for Education 2000 program. The three-year, $85 million grant program will support university research and curriculum development and help place PCs, workstations, servers and networking hardware based on Intel architecture in key research universities throughout the United States.

NERSC, established in 1974, provides high performance computing services to DOE's Energy Research programs at national laboratories, universities and industry. The facility has been located at Berkeley Lab since May 1996. Berkeley Lab is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Berkeley, CA. It conducts unclassified research and is managed by the University of California.

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