high physical density cluster design - power/heat/rf questions

Velocet mathboy at velocet.ca
Mon Mar 5 21:35:51 PST 2001

I have some questions about a cluster we're designing. We really need
a relatively high density configuration here, in terms of floor space.

To be able to do this I have found out pricing on some socket A boards with
onboard NICs and video (dont need video though). We arent doing anything
massively parallel right now (just running Gaussian/Jaguar/MPQC calculations)
so we dont need major bandwidth.* We're booting with root filesystem over
NFS  on these boards. Havent decided on FreeBSD or Linux yet. (This email
isnt about software config, but feel free to ask questions).

(* even with NFS disk we're looking at using MFS on freebsd (or possibly
the new md system) or the new nbd on linux or equivalent for gaussian's
scratch files - oodles faster than disk, and in our case, with no
disk, it writes across the network only when required. Various tricks
we can do here.)

The boards we're using are PC Chip M810 boards (www.pcchips.com). Linux seems
fine with the NIC on board (SiS chip of some kind - Ben LaHaise of redhat is
working with me on some of the design and has been testing it for Linux, I
have yet to play with freebsd on it).

The configuration we're looking at to achieve high physical density is
something like this:

               NIC and Video connectors
 ------------=--------------	 board upside down
    | cpu |  =  |   RAM   |
    |-----|     |_________|
    |     |      --fan--
    --fan--      |     | 
   _________     |hsync|
  |         |    |-----|
  |  RAM    | =  | cpu |
 -------------=-------------	board right side up

as you can see the boards kind of mesh together to take up less space. At
micro ATX factor (9.25" I think per side) and about 2.5 or 3" high for the
CPU+Sync+fan (tallest) and 1" tall for the ram or less, I can stack two of
these into 7" (4U). At 9.25" per side, 2 wide inside a cabinet gives me 4
boards per 4U in a standard 24" rack footprint. If I go 2 deep as well (ie 2x2
config), then for every 4U I can get 16 boards in.

The cost for this is amazing, some $405 CDN right now for Duron 800s with
128Mb of RAM each without the power supply (see below; standard ATX power is
$30 CDN/machine). For $30000 you can get a large ass-load of machines ;)

Obviously this is pretty ambitious. I heard talk of some people doing
something like this, with the same physical confirguration and cabinet
construction, on the list. Wondering what your experiences have been.

Problem 1
The problem is in the diagram above, the upside down board has another board
.5" above it - are these two boards going to leak RF like mad and interefere
with eachothers' operations? I assume there's not much to do there but to put
a layer of grounded (to the cabinet) metal in between.  This will drive up the
cabinet construction costs. I'd rather avoid this if possible.

Our original construction was going to be copper pipe and plexiglass sheeting,
but we're not sure that this will be viable for something that could be rather
tall in our future revisions of our model. Then again, copper pipe can be
bolted to our (cement) ceiling and floor for support.

For a small model that Ben LaHaise built, check the pix at

Its quick a hack, try not to laugh. It does engender the 'do it damn cheap'
mentality we're operating with here.

The boards are designed to slide out the front once the power and network
are disconnected.

An alternate construction we're considering is sheet metal cutting and
folding, but at much higher cost.

Problem 2 - Heat Dissipation
The other problem we're going to have is heat. We're going to need to build
our cabinet such that its relatively sealed, except at front, so we can get
some coherent airflow in between boards. I am thinking we're going to need to
mount extra fans on the back (this is going to make the 2x2 design a bit more
tricky, but at only 64 odd machines we can go with 2x1 config instead, 2
stacks of 32, just 16U high). I dont know what you can suggest here, its all
going to depend on physical configuration. The machine is housed in a proper
environment (Datavaults.com's facilities, where I work :) thats climate
controlled, but the inside of the cabinet will still need massive airflow,
even with the room at 68F.

Problem 3 - Power
The power density here is going to be high. I need to mount 64 power supplies
in close proximity to the boards, another reason I might need to maintain
the 2x1 instead of 2x2 design. (2x1 allows easier access too). 

We dont really wanna pull that many power outlets into the room - I dont know
what a diskless Duron800 board with 256Mb or 512Mb ram will use, though I
guess around .75 to 1 A. Im gonna need 3 or 4 full circuits in the room (not
too bad actually). However thats alot of weight on the cabinet to hold 60 odd
power supplies, not to mention the weight of the cables themselves weighing
down on it, and a huge mess of them to boot.

I am wondering if someone has a reliable way of wiring together multiple
boards per power supply? Whats the max density per supply? Can we
go with redundant power supplies, like N+1? We dont need that much
reliability (jobs are short, run on one machine and can be restarted
elsewhere), but I am really looking for something thats going to
reduce the cabling.

As well, I am hoping there is some economy of power converted here -
a big supply will hopefully convert power for multiple boards more
efficiently than a single supply per board. However, as always, the
main concern is cost.

Any help or ideas is appreciated.

Ken Chase, math at velocet.ca  *  Velocet Communications Inc.  *  Toronto, CANADA 

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