High-Performance Linux Clusters

The present and future of high-performance computing.

With years of experience under their belts, vendors and architects of high-performance Linux clusters are better equipped than ever to design stable, tuned systems that deliver the desired price performance and enable customers to get the most out of their application licenses.

First-generation systems may have been difficult to manage, but the newest generation comes equipped with advanced cluster management software, greatly simplifying operations. By selecting an experienced vendor, many of today's clusters are delivered as full-featured systems as opposed to an unwieldy pile of stitched-together commodity components. As a result, users benefit from both lower acquisition costs and easy-to-use high-performance systems.

The maturity of the Linux HPC industry also contributes to a deeper understanding of the codes users rely on, as well as the hardware that goes into building a system. Certain vendors have become experts at tuning systems and optimizing Linux to meet and overcome the challenges posed by widely used HPC applications. For example, most high-performance structures codes, such as those from ANSYS or ABAQUS, require high I/O to sustain higher rendering rates. Conversely, crash/impact codes don't require much I/O to run optimally; they are designed to run in parallel in systems where the average CPU count is 16. Linux has evolved to the point where it is now very easy for vendors to build systems that accommodate the needs of these codes—even within the same cluster.

Alliant Techsystems (ATK) is a recent example of how high-performance Linux clusters have matured. ATK is an advanced weapon and space systems company with many years of experience working with HPC systems. In 2006, faced with upgrading its aging proprietary system, the launch system's group invested, after extensive benchmarking, in a high-performance Linux cluster—finding one tuned and optimized for CFD, FEA and visualization codes. The decision reflected their understanding that Linux clusters—and vendors—had matured.

“We had heard several horror stories of organizations that moved to Linux supercomputers, only to suffer through installation times that stretched to six or eight months and beyond”, said Nathan Christensen, Engineering Manager at ATK Launch Systems Group. “For instance, one of ATK's other business units experienced eight weeks of waiting and downtime to get a system into production. The Launch Systems Group wanted to avoid a similar experience.”

“The system arrived application-tuned, validated and ready for production use”, said Christensen. “We were able to move quickly into full production, generating our simulations and conducting our analysis within two weeks of delivery.”

The system also accelerated the company's time to results, thereby enabling ATK to complete designs faster and conduct more frequent, higher-fidelity analysis. The launch system's group completes runs three to four times faster than before. In addition, on some of its key CFD and FEA applications, ATK has been able to achieve ten times the throughput performance.


The greater Linux community is also an important factor in assuring that Linux-based systems deliver the greatest performance. The benefit of being open source means that users and vendors from around the world continue to develop innovations and share them with the greater community. This enables Linux-based HPC systems to adapt more quickly to new hardware and software technologies. As a result, the ability to take advantage of new processors, interconnects and applications is much greater than with proprietary systems.

Additional Benefits

High-performance Linux clusters offer a range of benefits beyond raw application performance.

First, Linux is well known for its ability to interoperate with all types of architectures and networks. Because of the investment in HPC systems, users want to make certain that their systems are as future-proof as possible. Linux provides users with an operating system that is flexible enough to accommodate virtually any future advancement. This is further amplified, of course, when the larger Linux community, working together to solve common problems, is again taken into question. In addition, a variety of tools, such as Samba, allow Linux to share file services with Windows systems, and vice versa.

Second, Linux clusters evolved without headless operations. As a result, administrative tools are able to install and manage the system as a whole, rather than as individual workstations or servers. These tools continue to get easier to use, enabling users with limited technical skills to jump quickly into HPC. To take just one example, Linux Networx recently launched its newest cluster management application, Clusterworx Advanced. This application provides system administrators with intuitive tools that greatly simplify operations and reduce administration workload.

Third, Linux-based clusters are easy to scale due, in part, to newer filesystems, such as GPFS and Lustre, which provide better scalability, but only on Linux and UNIX. Windows-based filesystems are typically tuned for file sharing and don't provide the type of performance and accessibility required when lots of compute nodes all request the same dataset at the same time.

Fourth, resource management tools, such as Altair's PBS Pro and Platform LSF, ensure that computing resources are being allocated with utilization rates exceeding 90%. Without proper resource management, systems tend to work only when the engineering team works, thereby limiting overall utilization. With mature resource management tools, such as those available for Linux-based HPC systems, jobs can be scheduled 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Multiple jobs can be run simultaneously, as needed, thereby ensuring excess power is always put to use.

Fifth, from a stability perspective, Linux—due to its flexibility and the number of people working on refining it—is significantly more stable and scalable than other platforms. Windows, for instance, is prone to failure at moderately larger node counts and is not considered as an option at government and national laboratories.

Sixth, the nature of open source makes Linux the most convenient platform for vendors and users to work with. Standards are broadly defined and supported by a worldwide community of programmers—rather than the diminishing numbers found at the remaining proprietary vendors. As a result, there are no shortages of fully developed tools, utilities and software modifications that users and vendors can leverage in order to optimize their systems.