I'm Not Going to Pay a Lot for This Supercomputer!

Los Alamos National Laboratory and Caltech obtain gigaflops performance on parallel Linux machines running free software and built from commodity parts costing less than $55,000 each (in September 1996). Now, you can probably build a similar machine for about $25,000.

In Table 2, we summarize the price/performance of several machines capable of running the NAS (Numerical Aerospace Simulation Facility at NASA Ames Research Center) Class B benchmarks: Loki, the SGI Origin 2000, the IBM SP-2 P2SC and the DEC AlphaServer 8400/440.


A gravitational N-body simulation won LANL's Michael Warren and Caltech's John Salmon a Gordon Bell Performance Prize in 1992. A scant five years later, that same calculation can be run on a $50,000 machine. Technology continues to advance (Warren and Salmon recently achieved 170 sustained GFLOPS while running the N-body code with over 320 million particles on half of the nearly 10,000 processors of the Teraflops “ASCI Red” machine at Sandia National Laboratory), but the cost of the ever-improving “high-end” supercomputers keeps them beyond the reach of all but a lucky few. Even those lucky few must compete with one another for processor time in the never-ending game of large-scale computation. Commodity parts provide an opportunity for a handful of users to have a significant share of processor cycles on a machine which is capable of solving enormous computational problems in a reasonable time. Linux and the free software movement provide the software to take full advantage of the hardware's capabilities.


Jim Hill (jlhill@lanl.gov) is a graduate research assistant at Los Alamos National Laboratory who's thinking about renaming one of his two Linux boxes a zeroth-degree hypercube.

Michael S. Warren (mswarren@lanl.gov) received a B.S. in Physics and in Engineering and Applied Science from the California Institute of Technology in 1988 and a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1994. He is currently developing treecode algorithms for problems in cosmology and hydrodynamics as a technical staff member in the Theoretical Astrophysics group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has been involved with parallel computing since 1986 and with Linux since 1993.

Patrick Goda (pgoda@lanl.gov) is currently employed at Los Alamos National Lab in the Theoretical Astrophysics group. When he's not building clusters or hacking Linux software, he actually uses Linux to do real research in Meteoritics (like smashing simulated asteroids into a simulated Earth and seeing how grim the situation would be).