[Beowulf] What now?

Glen Gardner Glen.Gardner at verizon.net
Wed Aug 18 04:39:55 PDT 2004

Most of the commercially available software is aimed at numeric problem 
solving (modelling).  Matlab, IDL, Mathcad, and a host of others.
Usually, after a beowulf cluster is isntalled, a burn-in and testing 
phase begins in order to get an understanding of what that particular 
machine is good at, and what problems remain to be solved in order to 
get the most out of it. Some people have had some fun running a cluster 
as a pile of pc's using seti at home.

For many people, the machine itself is frequently the object of 
attention, more than the software it runs.  In that case you might want 
to spend your time tying differnet hardware and system configurations. 
 For others, speed is where it is at. I might suggest acquiring several 
benchmarks and running them on the computer and writing some parallel 
programs in C or Fortran to learm MPI and to get a feel for what the 
machine is (and is not) good for.

If you don't program in C,  C++, Fortran, Java , or Python, then you 
probably need to warm up to at least one of them as your favorite 
programming language so you can put your machine to work. Learning about 
the importance, sillyness, and annyoing inconsistencies of popular 
compilers and benchmarks on a Beowulf is not trivial , and can be 
entertaining, to say the least.

Right now, there is a lot of interest in gridded applications for 
parallel machines , so installing globus toolkit might prove useful and 
interesting if you are into that sort of thing. Alternativly, don't rule 
out writing your own gridding and networking software, as the "rules" 
for gridded applications have yet to be written. Be inventive, and have 
fun. In any case you will be writing some code and some shell scripts. 
It is standard fare on clusters.

 There is a great need for good console and graphical user interfaces 
for MPI on Linux/FreeBSD, with console mode being the current "best" 
popular user interface for Beowulf running MPI.  If you like to code and 
have an idea, you should pursue it. People are interested in parallel 
computing, but the lack of a sane user interface, and the custom nature 
of beowulf means that we have a very long way to go before parallel 
computing becomes a mainstream platform. This also means that there is a 
huge niche open to those who wish to fill it.

I had a conversation with a young fellow who told me he had a cluster, 
of nearly 30 old pc's in the basement of his parents house, which had 
been calculating pi for the last 6 months. He designed the project, and 
managed to scrounge up all the hardware and make it work for next to 
zero dollars invested.  A remarkable thing , and quite an achevement 
(kudos to the very supportive parents of that youngster).

I have been in a similar situation as you. I built a 12 node beowulf for 
the purpose of learning parallel computing, and once I had it built, I 
spent a short time wondering what I'd do with it.  The machine was the 
goal, but once I was there, I wanted to put it to work.  I began testing 
the cluster and identified a couple of bottlenecks I felt could be 
easily fixed. I eventually upgraded the hardware to 14 nodes and added 
improved networking and a separate I/O node to address these issues, and 
improved the performance measurably. After a while I decided it was time 
to stop "fixing" things and just put the machine to work (tweaking a 
beowulf is like peeling an onion, it never really ends).

Now my little cluster spends time as a test platform for things I don't 
want to annoy users with on the larger clusters at work. When it is not 
doing that , it runs  imaging software which I have written for my own 
use. Overall, it has proven to be quite useful for me in terms of 
learning, work, and just having fun with computing.

Whatever it is that fascinates you about parallel computing, you should 
pursue it.  Just follow your interests.

Glen Gardner

Jack C wrote:

> Hello all,
> I'm sorry to ask a question like this, but I'm seriously stuck. I'ver 
> installed MPI just because the idea of clustering excites me. But... 
> what now? What do all of you "veteran" Beowulf people do with yours? I 
> mean, are there GPL/etc packages, or code that anyone knows of? Mabye 
> primes, anything. (I tried to write some small things, but it's going 
> to take me many more months before I can effectivly design an 
> efficient program to utilize MPI)
> Thanks for you input!
> -Jack C
> jack {at} crepinc.com
> http://www.crepinc.com
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Glen E. Gardner, Jr.


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