Math Parallel Processing news

What is the Maths Parallel Processing Supercomputer?

The Maths Parallel Processing initiative harnesses the power of many individual PCs to form a supercomputer capable of carrying out very large computational tasks such as model simulations, etc. If you can imagine a large computer containing not just one or two CPUs (Central Processing Unit, or processors) but 50, 100 or 200 of them plus a huge amount of memory, this is a very good approximation of the Maths supercomputer. Currently, all 36 of the Dell GX400 PCs in Huxley room 215 plus the 43 Dell GX1 PCs in 410 and 411 form part of this cluster outside of normal college hours - this gives us a total of 79 CPUs and 16 gigabytes of memory. As these computers would otherwise be idle at night and at weekends and during college holidays, this gives us many megaflops of raw processing power for no real cost.

How does it work?

These machines all have Windows 2000 installed and in addition, those in 215 also have Red Hat Linux installed; these computers operate as normal PCs during the daytime. At the end of the day when the room is closed to students, the machines shut down automatically and then boot FreeBSD UNIX from a network boot server, running UNIX entirely in RAM (memory) and leaving the machine's own hard disk untouched.

The computational work to be done is then downloaded onto the boot server (which is also the central controller for the cluster), which knows how to divide up the tasks involved and distribute them to each PC in the parallel processing cluster for processing. Output from the computations is sent back to the controller and written to disk files, etc in the usual way on the controller's disks, not the PC's disk.

Early in the morning, after the cluster has worked all night, the cluster shuts down automatically and reboots back into Windows, ready for the room's reopening to students.

At what times is the cluster operational?

From Monday to Thursday the cluster is operational from 9.30pm in 410 and 411 and from 10.45pm in 215 and runs until 7.30am the following morning. On Fridays, the cluster starts up at the same times and continues to run over the weekend until 7.30am the following Monday.

For the summer vacation, rooms 215 and 410 are closed altogether from June 29th until August 31st and the cluster will be running full time over this period. We will get an awful lot of computing done! In addition, the 18 PCs in the library computing room (room 411) will join this cluster whenever the libabry is closed.

If rooms 215 and 410 are closed, are there any Windows PCs I can use?

The library computing room (room 411, inside the Maths Library) houses 18 PCs running Windows 2000 which are available to all users during library opening hours. During the night and at weekends, however, these machines reboot into FreeBSD UNIX and job the cluster In addition, room 409 has a number of PC's running both Windows 2000 and Windows XP which are available to postgraduates of the Mathematics department. Finally, room 212 is home to a number of older PCs running Windows NT4 and some of these machines also dual-boot Linux (Red Hat 6.2). These systems are accessible to all Maths users at any time.

These computers should satisfy the requirement for undergraduate computing facilities during the summer vacation but do let me know if these facilities cause you any undue hardship or inconvenience.

Future plans

There are a lot of Windows PCs sitting idle at night and at weekends in the department so we are looking at these hungrily, especially as the ongoing equipment renewal is putting increasingly more powerful computers onto people's desktops.

Andy Thomas

Unix/network sys admin,
Department of Mathematics

last updated: 21.7.2003