David Bakin’s programming blog.

Building the Home Supercomputer

I was configuring a new computer to be used for testing concurrent software, and was using my standard self-guidelines: second-fastest processor available (a nod to economy), as much DRAM as I can jam on a motherboard, and the latest dual-graphics card technology. Whohoo! But then I found this site on building a very economical cluster system and I realized my guidelines were old-fashioned. I’m now in the mood to build my own micro-Beowulf, so I can experiment with parallel clusters as well as multicore concurrency.

Check it out: The system described produces 26Gflops at a cost (August 2007) of $1256! It consists of 4 microATX motherboards, each with a dual core CPU and 2GB RAM, 4 power supplies, 1 hard disk, and 1 8-port gigabit switch. The “structure” is scrap plexiglass and threaded rods – definitely minimal! – and the whole thing is 11" x 12" x 17"! Kudos to Professor Joel Adams and his student Tim Brom for designing, building, configuring, and benchmarking this small Beowulf.

Here’s another such system – LittleFe.  And here is a homebrew 10-node system from 2000, with the same idea w.r.t. minimal packaging.

(My main conclusion about my self-guidelines: I don’t need even the second-fastest processor anymore. Nearly any current processor is fast enough for development purposes, compiler and system bloat notwithstanding. This system uses cheap multicore processors, a reasonable amount of memory for each node, and doesn’t need anything more than the built-in motherboard graphics. I would still like a system with a hot new graphics card however, so I can experiment with GPGPU.)

Update Sept 18 2007: Lot’s of people are doing work in this area—which will make it easy to get started!  Here are some more links:

  • ParallelKnoppix: A LiveCD that let’s you boot up an MPI cluster in 5 minutes! (2021-04-28: Original project is dead, but LiveCD is archived at given link.)

    There seems to be a more recent descendent of ParallelKnoppix at PelicanHPC.

And this page (dead) from Dec 2005 describes how some guy built a “mobile wireless linux cluster” (2 nodes) in order to have access to “big computer resources” while exploring a cave, mountain climbing, a weekend trip to the mountains, or who knows what else.