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Beowulf: Supercomputers for the Masses

  • July 27, 2000
  • By Jason Compton
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Real-world Beowulf

Atipa Linux Solutions is pulling customers in from beyond academia. The company characterizes Beowulf systems as a "significant percentage" of its revenues, and counts Bloomberg L.P., Conoco Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp., and Motorola Inc., as well as scientific and research institutions, among its Linux-cluster clients. "I deal with Beowulf clientele on almost a daily basis," says David Grant, Atipa sales manager. Last year, Atipa's sales organization was only able to come up with two or three Beowulf leads per month. Now, they're pulling more in every week.

Atipa, for example, is working with a large telecommunications client interested in a Beowulf cluster for record processing. Like many newcomers to Linux clustering, the telecom company is buying a cluster with only a small number of nodes at first. That's fine with Atipa: if the system is a success, it expects follow-on orders. "A lot of the industry is in trial mode, and that's the beauty of clustering: you can trial it," and add extra nodes as the need increases, said Maria Goulet, Atipa's director of marketing. All of that business has translated to year-to-date Beowulf revenues for Atipa 30% greater than the entire '99 total, with even better performance expected for the next six months.

Beowulf business was so promising for Alta Technology Corp., of Sandy, Ut., primarily known as a system board manufacturer, that it formed Linux NetworX, a subsidiary dedicated to Beowulf cluster sales and support. The company has sold several major clusters, including a 256-CPU setup, and a 128-CPU cluster used by Lockheed Martin Corp. Linux NetworX also develops and markets an easier-to-use management suite for its Beowulf clients. Dubbed ClusterWorX, the program is currently only sold as part of a Beowulf hardware package, and is proprietary, although customers do receive source code for their internal use only.

As for the mainstream open source Beowulf package, look for a new revision to be released through Scyld Computing Corp., of Annapolis, Md., by fall that incorporates an easier installation system, new graphical administration tools, and tighter integration with the Linux kernel. With the new software, Beowulf administrators will be closer to the experience of managing a unified supercomputer from a single terminalusers will be able to run standard system status tools and see all of the cluster jobs as though they were truly managing a supercomputer instead of a stack of PCs acting in concert.

One direction you won't see Beowulf going, if Donald Becker has anything to say about it, is across the greater Internet. Becker now maintains and manages the Beowulf source code while providing commercial development and support for Beowulf systems through Scyld Computing. While distributed computing projects such as SETI@Home have people excited about the prospects of a true Internet supercomputer, Becker says that Beowulf will stay squarely focused on linking machines on private, high-speed, high-reliability LANs. According to Becker, accounting for the latency and security risks over the Internet makes an Internet Beowulf cluster unworkable. "That security translates into a lot of overhead," he says.

Keep in mind that Beowulf isn't even the only open-source game in town. While Beowulf is generally considered the leader in high-performance cluster computing for Linux, projects such as Linux Virtual Server and Kimberlite, from Mission Critical Linux, focus on "high-availability" applications, such as Web and database servers. In the more commercial space, TurboCluster from TurboLinux looms large in high-availability, and it remains to be seen what Caldera will do with SCO's UnixWare NonStop high-availability clustering softwarea Linux port would certainly not come as a shock. Beowulf, like its heroic namesake, will have to remain vigilant.

Jason Compton is an Evanston, IL-based technology journalist. He is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Linux Magazine, and Smart Business.

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