The Beowulf Evolution

Second-generation Beowulf clusters offer single-process I/O space, thin slave nodes, GUI utilities and more for adaptability and manageability.

Imagine, for a moment, if you will, driving your car into a full-service gas station—a near anachronism—pulling up to the attendant and saying, “Fill'er up, check the oil and wipers, and...give me 20 more horsepower, would you?” The attendant, not phased by the request, looks at you and says, “Would you like four-wheel drive with that? I hear it might snow tonight.” You think for a moment and respond positively—four-wheel drive would be good to have.

If only automobiles, and Beowulf clusters, were so adaptable. Yet, the single most important distinguishing feature of Beowulf 2 technology is adaptability—the ability to add more computing power to meet changing needs. To understand and appreciate how Beowulf technology has become so adaptable, an understanding of Beowulf 1 is in order.

The Roots of Beowulf

As we all know by now, the original concept for Beowulf clusters was conceived by Donald Becker while he was at NASA Goddard in 1994. The premise was that commodity computing parts could be used, in parallel, to produce an order of magnitude leap in computing price/performance for a certain class of problems. The proof of concept was the first Beowulf cluster, Wiglaf, which was operational in late 1994. Wiglaf was a 16-processor system with 66MHz Intel 80486 processors that were later replaced with 100MHz DX4s, achieving a sustained performance of 74Mflops/s (74 million floating-point operations per second). Three years later, Becker and the CESDIS (Center of Excellence in Space Data and Information Services) team won the prestigious Gordon Bell award. The award was given for a cluster of Pentium Pros that were assembled for SC'96 (the 1996 SuperComputing Conference) that achieved 2.1Gflops/s (2.1 billion floating-point operations per second). The software developed at Goddard was in wide use by then at many national labs and universities.

First-Generation Beowulf

The first generation of Beowulf clusters had the following characteristics: commodity hardware, open-source operating systems such as Linux or FreeBSD and dedicated compute nodes residing on a private network. In addition, all of the nodes possessed a full operating system installation, and there was individual process space on each node.

These first-generation Beowulfs ran software to support a message-passing interface, either PVM (parallel virtual machine) or MPI (message-passing interface). Message-passing typically is how slave nodes in a high-performance computing (HPC) cluster environment exchange information.

Some common problems plagued the first-generation Beowulf clusters, largely because the system management tools to control the new clusters did not scale well because they were more platform- or operating-specific than the parallel programming software. After all, Beowulf is all about running high-performance parallel jobs, and far less attention went into writing robust, portable system administration code. The following types of problems hampered early Beowulfs:

  • Early Beowulfs were difficult to install. There was either the labor-intensive, install-each-node-manually method, which was error-prone and subject to typos, or the more sophisticated install-all-the-nodes-over-the-network method using PXE/TFTP/NFS/DHCP—clearly getting all one's acronyms properly configured and running all at once is a feat in itself.

  • Once installed, Beowulfs were hard to manage. If you think about a semi-large cluster with dozens or hundreds of nodes, what happens when the new Linux kernel comes out, like the 2.4 kernel optimized for SMP? To run a new kernel on a slave node, you have to install the kernel in the proper space and tell LILO (or your favorite boot loader) all about it, dozens or hundreds of times. To facilitate node updates the r commands, such as rsh and rcp, were employed. The r commands, however, require user account management accessibility on the slave nodes and open a plethora of security holes.

  • It was hard to adapt the cluster: adding new computing power in the form of more slave nodes required fervent prayers to the Norse gods. To add a node, you had to install the operating system, update all the configuration files (a lot of twisty little files, all alike), update the user space on the nodes and, of course, all the HPC code that had configuration requirements of its own—you do want PBS to know about the new node, don't you?.

  • It didn't look and feel like a computer; it felt like a lot of little independent nodes off doing their own thing, sometimes playing together nicely long enough to complete a parallel programming job.

In short, for all the progress made in harnessing the power of commodity hardware, there was still much work to be done in making Beowulf 1 an industrial-strength computing appliance. Over the last year or so, the Rocks and OSCAR clustering software distributions have developed into the epitome of Beowulf 1 implementations [see “The Beowulf State of Mind”, LJ May 2002, and “The OSCAR Revolution”, LJ June 2002]. But if Beowulf commodity computing was to become more sophisticated and simpler to use, it was going to require extreme Linux engineering. Enter Beowulf 2, the next generation of Beowulf.


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