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Choosing the Right Cluster System 106

ckotso asks: "So I've read here and there about linux clusters, and I am ready to set on creating one with some help of the educational institute I am working for. So far I've found out about Beowulf, SCI and MOSIX. I really wish I can get some help on this, since NT is making its way into the University gradually and I hate to see this. I want to give a cheap and robust alternative to this place, I simply have to change their minds! " Interested? There's more information inside.

"My questions are:

  1. Have I missed any other serious competitor in the cluster field?
  2. What are the pros and cons of these systems?
  3. Has anyone tried them all and written any report as to how they compete?
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Choosing the Right Cluster System

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  • Your question is a bit like: "So I keep reading about those 'automotive' thingies, and I wonder which one to buy: a 747, a Suzuki motorbine or a cruiseliner?"


  • I think we need to start out with this very important question. What do you want to use it for? Depending on how you want to use it will determine the style of cluster you need. Each style has it's plusses and minuses. Some are better for batch processing, other are better at handling large amounts of interactive work. What do you need?

  • by Anonymous Coward
    If you want a highly parallel application engine, Beowulf is for you. Otherwise check out the linux-ha pages at http:/ / ilability-HOWTO.html [].

    Linux is the OS for parallel clusters, but for High Availability you might to better just to buy redundant hardware and run a single linux box for now (since the main reason you need NT clusters is 'cause you have to reboot the box for installs, memory problems and general BSOD problems). If you want to run a clustered database server or something for scalability, look to Sun right now. Maybe with the 2.4 release we'll be able to make some inroads there, but right now Linux has some architectural issues with sharing disk systems.

  • by Noryungi ( 70322 ) on Wednesday December 01, 1999 @03:21AM (#1490767) Homepage Journal
    OK, here is my take on your question. Watch out, though, as I am not a Beowulf expert.

    Here are some information you may consider before starting your own cluster:
    • Beowulf clusters have to be useful for the kind of scientific projects your university undertakes. Large science (physics, astronomy) projects, usually coded in Fortran and involving lots of calculations that can be computed in parallel, are ideal applications for them. Other applications may be a lot less interesting. A Beowulf cluster, depsite its power, is not always the perfect solution.
    • If your University is short on cash, you may want to investigate the "Stone Soup" [] cluster -- recycled old Pentiums and 486s can find a second lease on life in a Beowulf cluster. Pros: cheap. Cons: require a lot of labor and patience and is less powerful than Beowulf cluster using up-to-date CPUs and network connections.
    • To be truly effective, Beowulf clusters require at least a couple of very powerful servers and very advanced network hardware -- be sure to compute this into the total cost.
    • Beowulf clusters are not for the faint of heart. They require quite a lot of skills, as far as the network configuration, machine configuration and traffic optimization are concerned. It's not surprising the first Beowulf were born at NASA -- It did require rocket scientists to make them work! =) Once they are up and running, though, their performances are close or better than dedicated supercomputers -- for a small fraction of the price.
    • Another good side of Beowulf is the fail-safe possibilities and evolution capacities of such a machine. If a "node" goes down, the machine does not crash, and the node share of the task(s) can be assigned by the main server to another machine. If you need a more powerful machine, simply add a dozen new PCs to your mix and watch those MIPS/Gigaflops go up!
    • Finally, never forget the one argument that wins them all: price, price, price, price! Linux is free, Intel PCs are dirt cheap, all you need is a lot of space and a dedicated team to make it work. Oh, and lots of network cards & cables... =)

    So, some positive factors, some negative ones. If you want to convince your University, always remind them that they can always count on the support of other universities and research centres the world over that are using this technology right now.

    Good luck!
  • by SEWilco ( 27983 ) on Wednesday December 01, 1999 @03:24AM (#1490768) Journal
    That's quite an assortment. What you want depends on your needs and on the characteristics of the choices. As for NT, the availability of source for many of these things will be nice for research activities.
    • Beowulf [] is one of a family of parallel programming API tools. Programs must use the API to accomplish parallel programming.
    • SCI [] is fast hardware with support for distributed shared memory, messaging, and data transfers. Again, if you don't use the API then no gain.
    • DIPC [] is distributed System V IPC. Programs which use the IPC API can be converted to DIPC easily, such as just by adding the DIPC flag to the IPC call.
    • MOSIX [] is the most general-purpose. Processes are scattered across a cluster automatically without having to modify the programs. No API needed other than usual Unix-level process use. Allows parallel execution of any program, although full use requires a parallel program design.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I'm not associated with Sun and would rather not have another discussion on whether the SCSL is either a Good Thing or Evil Incarnate, but recently Sun announced the availability of their high performance clustering toolkit as source under the SCSL that has been used by many, many machines in the top 500. Pulling that announcement out of my mailbox, it looks like:


    Sun is pleased to announce that on November 15th Sun HPC ClusterTools[tm] software was made available through Sun Community Source Licensing (SCSL).

    We appreciate the interest you have already expressed in this offering and are excited about the opportunities that the Community Source Licensing model presents. Since our initial June announcement we have completed the work needed to make HPC ClusterTools available through SCSL, and we are very encouraged by the large number of individuals who have registered their interest at our Web site. We look forward to development by the community and wish to extend our thanks to all who will be joining this community effort.

    You can access HPC ClusterTools SCSL source code via the Web at: []

    This site contain a licensing overview, FAQ's, technical information, download information, support information, and related links. This provides an excellent introduction to the Sun HPC ClusterTools SCSL product and should make it easy for you to download, build, and start developing with the product.

    Again, we thank you for your interest and look forward to your active participation in the ongoing development of the community.


    All that stated, the most useful info is actually on the Technical Description page [] or on the previous ClusterTools 3.0 documentation. [].

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Sorry for the anonymous post but I just haven't logged in for a while. MOSIX only does resource management (balancing). The code to get data distributed over a MOSIX cluster is very, very simple. (A basic fork would do the trick). I have setup a MOSIX cluster in an afternoon and got my processes distributed automatically. There is some limitation but all in all it's very nice. If you want to do a quick demo try the MOSIX solution. If you have a lot of expertise the Beowulf seems to be the highest performance solution but has the drawback of needing expertise and high bandwidth connections between nodes that translate into cost. If you have a LAB with a few computers setup the MOSIX cluster and play with it it should not take to long. The Beowulf I would only really investigate if the problem domain cannot be subdevided into large chunks. Regards
  • If you are looking for the kind of clustering that Windoze NT does, then you want something like TurboCluster Server from TurboLinux, it is clustering for high availability and high throughput for web servers. TurboLinux []

    If you need more general load balancing clustering for enterprise applications, look at Linas Vepstas's Linux Enterprise Computing pages at [], he has a section on clustering on that page.

    If you need supercomputer numbercrunching or render-farm type clustering, then the Beowulf approach is what you want. Linas' pages also have a section on Beowulf type clustering.

  • by Mononoke ( 88668 ) on Wednesday December 01, 1999 @03:41AM (#1490772) Homepage Journal
    The Appleseed Mac cluster at UCLA []

    Click here [] to go directly to the project abstract (more details, less graphics.)


  • by Eivind Eklund ( 5161 ) on Wednesday December 01, 1999 @03:47AM (#1490774) Journal
    First: You need to define what you want out of your cluster - what kind of applications it is going to run, what sort of environment you want for them, how large a cluster you want to build, whether you want to do 'free cycle stealing', and whether you want high availability. A 'cluster' is much to vague a term for it to be possible to give much advice based on just that, or even further references.

    Second: SCI is orthogonal to the other two technologies - it is a special hardware network technology (Scalable Coherent Interface), originally made to support distributed shared memory. You may be thinking of the software Dolphin Interconnect Solutions [] provide with their SCI solutions, but as far as I know, that doesn't directly enter into the same space, either. Their web pages does certainly not indicate that it does, and my discussions with (one of?) their Linux developer(s) implied that it contained somewhat more (lock managers etc), but not in the same space. A technology that compete with SCI, though proprietary, is Myrinet []. This has a longer history than SCI, and has been less plagued with problems than SCI (though SCI is supposedly quite stable now).

    Third: There are a bunch of other technologies (some cross-platform, some single-platform) that compete in making it easy to build clusters. MOSIX and Beowulf are just two of them. If you give more details of what you want to achieve, I'll dig out references from my collection (made to support the development of FreeBSD-specific clustering improvements, so some types of references may be lacking, but I'll probably be able to come with at least some points to start for any wanted cluster workload.)


  • On the other hand, administration/management type people who don't know what a Beowulf cluster does or how it is used are often involved in the decision making process for computers at universities/companies. Pro-Windows zealots of that type try to throw NT at everything too. And as we all know, Windows NT is not a drop in replacement for UNIX/Linux for every task either.

    What is your problem with someone trying to do a little research into what alternatives are out there? What have the Windows zealots got to hide? If they can't ask questions like this in a forum like Slashdot, where can they ask?

    As for making real-world decisions in the future, it is best to have the information on which to make a good decision. You seem to be implying that people should just roll over and go for the 'easy answer'.

  • One VERY important thing to consider is how the clustering technology is implemented in a given solution. For example, Mosix does not require any rewrites to your code, except maybe making the program fork off more often so that the processes can become more distributed. Paralell Virtual Machine (PVM), which is one of the most popular methods of implementing Beowulf clusters, however, is a code library that must be integrated into each program you want to run on the cluster. So, depending on your (or your users) programming knowledge, you should be careful about what clustering architecture you use.
  • Admitting that you don't know is the acceptance of knowledge.
  • Well, I can't find the article now, but didn't we have an interview a while ago with a guy (whose name I forget) that was doing some cool Linux clustering.../real/ pull-the-plug-and-it-fails-over clustering? I remember it was a bit different from Beowulf and it was really cool.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Do you want great clustering? Use VMS, nothing beats it for clustering. The UI sucks, its a pain to admin, but the clustering gives your tons of power. Most clustering uses custom software, you can just as easily right that custom software for VMS as you could for UNIX.
  • by Chalst ( 57653 ) on Wednesday December 01, 1999 @04:35AM (#1490780) Homepage Journal
    Good post, just one main thing to add. In a cluster system hwat you
    can do is very much constrained by the way you glue the individual
    nodes together. The 100Mbits per second throughput of a fast ethernet
    connection may sound as if it gives you all the connectivity you need
    but if a machine sends each 100bit opacket to a different machine, it
    will slow down to a snails pace as it is not very fast at these kind
    of switching tasks.

    Good routing software can make up for this, as can careful forethought
    about the network geometry. An ATM network is the best of all worlds,
    but very expensive ... actually what happened about all those claims
    that ATM routers would become as cheap as water? A last point: look
    at the Parallel processing HOWTO [].
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Linux is better than Solaris at sharing disks because you can use GFS:

    Matt O'Keefe

    U. of Minnesota

  • by Zootlewurdle ( 84970 ) on Wednesday December 01, 1999 @04:57AM (#1490782)
    I would whole heartedly recommend that anybody interested in clustering should read Greg Pfisters "In Search of Clusters" published by Prentice Hall - ISBN 0-13-899709-8. It is the seminal work in this area.

    Other good resources include:
    - IEEE Task Force on Cluster Computing html
    - Linux-HA
    - some general links .html

    There are more clustering products out than you can shake a stick at, and everybody seems have a different take what they mean by a cluster.

    Does anyone have any information on what the Linux Cluster Cabal are up to ?

    Probably the best thought out cluster solutions are OpenVMS Clusters and UnixWare NonStop Clusters.


  • > Beowulf is one of a family of parallel programming API tools. Programs must use the API to accomplish parallel programming.

    Not quite. A Beowulf class supercomputer is a high-performance network of workstations built from commodity hardware running on a free operating system like Linux.

    Beowulf is *not* a parallel programming API and, in fact, there are several common APIs currently used on Beowulfs: the old standard PVM (Parallel Virtual Machine), the up and coming MPI (Message-Passing Interface), and less common AFAPI (Aggregate Function Application Program Interface).
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Do you want great clustering? Use VMS, nothing beats it for clustering. The UI sucks, its a pain to admin, but the clustering gives your tons of power. Most clustering uses custom software, you can just as easily right that custom software for VMS as you could for UNIX.

    You are correct that nothing beats OpenVMS for true clustering []. VMS was first with clustering, and it is still far ahead of the pack thanks to Galaxy technology []. However, I have to disagree with a few of your points.

    As far as UI is concerned, it has the same interfaces as *nix - X-Window and CLI, and the DCL CLI is far easier and more intuitive than any *nix shell. Also, I find OpenVMS systems far easier to manage than *nix, due both to its well thought-out design and to the power of clustering. Managing 200 clustered systems is no more difficult than managing two thanks to clustering.

    I do concede that this is all rather subjective. It all depends upon what you are used to, and there aren't many people out there who are experienced at OpenVMS system management. I do maintain however that the learning curve for OpenVMS is not nearly as steep as that for *nix.

    Of course, with OpenVMS you lose one of the factors the original poster was looking for - low cost. OpenVMS base licences are pricey to begin with, and cluster licences are stratospheric. That's why only the big boys like banks, credit unions, stock exchanges, and semiconductor fabs use OpenVMS. (Most microprocessor fab lines, including Intel's, are controlled by OpenVMS systems.) These are businesses where downtime costs serious money.

    I also have a serious beef with people referring to Beowulf and its ilk as "clusters." It is not. Such technologies are examples of massively parallel distributed computing systems, not clusters. For crying out loud, they don't even have a distributed lock manager, or an equivalent to MSCP disk serving (NSF doesn't even remotely come close). And don't even get me started on the 2-node failover crap that Microsoft is calling NT Clustering...

    an OpenVMS System Manager who is severely irritated by all of these pretenders to the throne...

    OpenVMS FAQ []

  • On the Apple front I'd also look to the upcoming OS X - due early next year.

    While Apple hasn't stated whether the the new OS will support it there have been several "rumors site" reports of OS X supporting Next's Autoclustering features over existing networks- perhaps even autoclustering over the internet. (Depending on data needs etc of course...)

    If this interests you I'd look to old docs on Next's clustering features and if they sound appealing look to see if they're coming in the first release of OS X. As with all clustering issues YMMV....

  • by Anonymous Coward
    I'm kinda surprised I didn't see this as the First Post, but what about giving a call to VA?

    They do clusters, and they'll slap together an entire system for you.

    Mind you, I haven't tried their systems (umm, clusters are expensive ya know), but it seems to me that going with VA would get you pretty damn close to a turnkey solution.

    Give 'em a call. It couldn't hurt, anyway.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Sure you can get Intel boxes for a dime a dozen...sure linux is free. Sure Windows costs money to buy. BUT they both require something that costs alot: service.

    Beowulf clusters are potential security risks if not properly administered and kept patched up to date. Installation and maintanance require *good* sysadmins. What's the average salary of a sysadmin? Makes hardware costs look like peanuts.

    I have to beleive that your "educational institution" is looking for some serious numerical problem (certainly doubt that it is for database management...). Look at what you currently have in house for expertise. Then do some homework on MPI or PVM, both standards/frameworks for doing parallel computations. One of those 2 will fit your needs. There are ports to almost every known OS (haven't seen one for the Amiga, sorry :), and can use hetero/homegeneous CPUS, etc.
  • First of all, as some other posts said, don't go off building a Beowulf (that name has been overused IMHO) unless you know what you are building it for: clusters are built around the software you're gonna run on them, not the other way around.

    If you plan to port MPP applications from a Cray or an Origin 2K, a Beowulf with and MPI port will most likely do what you want. If you are interested in a HA cluster, then we're really not talking Beowulfs; take a look at TurboLinux's TurboCluster distro.

    If you want to throw lotsa CPU power to a problem that's not already MPP'd, a port to Mosix might worth your while, but investigate cautiously: Mosix does a good job (I am told) of process migration, but it doesnt migrate sockets yet, so it may effectively double your network bandwidth --this may not be a problem if your interprocess comm is minimal, or it might be a show-stopper. Do consider a port to MPI in this case: MPI is an industry standard and it works almost as well on a Cray as it does on a Beowulf.

    Network communication is not as big a deal as it used to be: besides SCI, there's Myrinet (with OSS drivers and software too), Gigabit ethernet (also OSS drivers from some companies) and they all more or less work with Linux. Or you can go with the original Beowulf solution and bond Ethernet channels (i.e. make 2 NICs look and feel like 1 to the OS, almost doubling your capacity). It all depends on your application's inter-process communication requirements.

    If you do decide on a Beowulf, heed these words: be carefule of SMP machines, at least this early in the game. Linux SMP is deficient at best --hopefully 2.4.x will solve it, but I wouldn't hold my breath. If you decide on an SMP machine, stay away from Xeon's as the extra cost will be useless right now --because of SMP problems with Linux, you might as well have a regular Pentium in there, or even some Celerons (hey, it'll buy better networking equipment ;-). Also, do not plan to rely on NFS: Linux NFS is spotty when stressed by some high-bandwidth processes.

    I guess the best advice would be: Don't go spending all your NSF money right away. Get 2-3 machines with some Fast Ethernet, set the thing up, port your software, make sure it works as well as you expected it to, THEN go spend the big $$$ on SCI, more nodes, etc. The biggest advantage of Beowulfs is *Freedom* as in flexibility ;-)...

    As the old maps said: "Beware: Monsters Here" ;-)...

    engineers never lie; we just approximate the truth.
  • One thing to keep in mind is that, last I checked, Beowulf clusters can still only be used on 2.0.x kernels, which implies reduced performance, security, and stability compared to a system such as MOSIX which will run on 2.2.x (or future 2.4.x) kernels. If this has changed, please let me know, but it was accurate as of September, and I haven't seen any new announcements on freshmeat about it, so I'm assuming it hasn't changed.

    I admin a small (8 node) cluster, and so far my options are stay at Redhat 5.2/2.0.36 until Beowulf is ported to 2.2 (with all the problems of finding glibc 2.0.x RPMs now, etc), or install Redhat 6.1 and then reinstall 2.0.36. Neither of these seems particularly optimal.
  • Um, I'm not sure what you're talking about. My "cluster" consists of two 2.2 nodes. I d/l'd and compiled PVM 3.4 and it seems to work fine. Our school's 8 node, 16 CPU cluster is only on a 2.0 kernel because of a network driver, not because of any of the other software. IIRC, the plan is upgrade next semester.
  • No, Beowulf does work just fine with 2.2.x kernels

    Lobos2 at NIH is a beowulf cluster with 100 compute nodes that were recently updated to 2.2.13
  • by foop ( 30304 )
    Also notable is Condor (similar to Mosix).

    I suspect you just want lots of general purpose
    compute power available to many users.
  • One of the other posts already pointed out that NT Enterprise Edition only supports 2 node fail-over. However, I believe that [he] is talking about Windows load balancing service. This used to be "Convoy Cluster Server". This is a pretty slick little piece of software, but it's not 100% transparent. 1. I believe that it supports up to 16 nodes in a cluster. 2. It distributes load based on which machine is least loaded in the cluster getting the next request. 3. You can't use things like ASP sessions because they don't work in a distributed environment. Jim
  • Why don't you go to the website for VA Linux which is building clusters. Maybe you can learn something there.
  • There is no reason a cluster needs to be connected to the rest of the world. It would actually be advantageous to have the cluster isolated from the world to prevent it from talking to the internet/intranet and using it's time in a meaningess manner because a packet got misrouted. This can be accomplished by pulling the plug to the world, or by having the plug to the world running through a single high security firewall, that is if outside access is required.

    Now the problem is physical security, which for all but the determined, is trivial: Lock the door!
  • DCL CLI is far easier and more intuitive than any *nix shell

    Woof. I totally disagree on that one. I always hated DCL and found navigating the VMS file systems and directory structure maddening. The VMS file versioning was also inconvenient. I really hated VMS's error messages, which were always nearly indecipherable and full of %%%% signs. Blech.

    Of course, with OpenVMS you lose one of the factors the original poster was looking for - low cost.

    That is an understatement. Commercial UNIX looks like a bargain compared to OpenVMS. Not to mention the cost of the support and maintenance contracts and the cost of other software for OpenVMS.

  • SMP isn't too bad in the 2.2.x kernel. I am running it on my ppro system, 2 processors, 128MB ram. It scales very well with 2 processors, especially compared to the 2.0.x kernel. I almost didn't recognize my machine when I upgraded!

    I will agree that celerons are a better way to go. I have built a few celeron computers for less that $500 for friends (their money) that kick the pants off of everything I own. My system, a dual PPro 200/256k with 128MB ram cost just over $1000. My friends system, Celeron 400, 64 MB ram is actually slightly faster in Linux. Bus speeds are the same, so it's the chip, especially with the deficency in ram on her machine.

    Now look at annother friend of mine. His machine is a pentiumii 400, on the 100MHZ bus, with 128MB ram. This machine performs negligably faster than the celeron machine.

    My apologies, I don't have numbers for you at this time. I probably won't be able to get numbers in a reasonable ammount of time either.
  • This looks good, but it's not Open Source.

    So, screw it.
  • I would definitely agree with this. The Sun Enterprise Cluster software is the way to go if you are looking for 2 to 4 node clusters for HA application failover or for something like a 2 node parallel server for a database. I am fairly certain that it will run on Solaris x86 too, though if you really need clustering (and the inherent concept of "no single points of failure"), you probably should be looking at the more dependable, and redundant, Sparc platforms.

    However, if you are looking for a very large parallel processing "machine" reminiscent of the old Sequent machines for distributed parallel applications, it seems to me that Beowulf would be a better solution.

    It really does depend on what you are looking for.

    -Solaris/Sun Cluster Administrator
  • Almost no one tries to build NT clusters. One cluster vendor reported that only about 10% of their clients specify NT. The reason is simple - you are simply throwing your money away, as NT doesn't scale. That alone should be sufficient to make the case against NT clustering.

    I'm as anti-NT as the next Slash-Dotter, but lets not go as low as MS does. That comment is pure FUD. NT Will definitely "scale". The Mindcraft benchmarks, with all their bias, effectively showed that.

    The problem is that while the first box that crashed is still re-booting, the fail-over box crashes as well. Even their HA clusters are only 99% available... pathetic.
  • OK, thanks for the replies. I had seen this on NASA's Beowulf Project web page somewhere, so I assumed that was that. I'll check it out.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    We [] build turn-key Beowulf systems for a living. You may want to consult: []

    Beowulf FAQ []

    Beowulf Underground []

    Beowulf Quick Start []

    In addition, you may want to contact us directly about helping you convince your management that turn-key and supportable Linux Beowulf Clusters are available and do useful things. Take a look at our success stories [].

    Doug Eadline,
    Paralogic, Inc. []

  • As all the other posts note, the term cluster is too vague. If your plant needs clustering for High Availability and you're using Netware for file and print sharing, then you might want to check out Novell's Netware Clustering Services.

    The Novell cluster works via NDS. Novell has designed a new directory object called a cluster. Servers in the cluster are mapped via NDS. The cluster object runs on any one of the servers in the cluster.

    Data is shared via a Fibre Channel SAN. The cluster knows who has what LUN's mounted, what applications are running, and where they are in cache.

    A LAN link is required for heartbeats and there is a special white board in the shared storage to monitor server stats.

    If one of the servers goes down, then the cluster migrates the applications that were running on the server to the other servers on the system. The whole process takes less than a minute. The NCS also has some elaborate algorithms to decide if a server is down, and applies a poison pill to insure non-duplicity of processes.

    It is not for the faint of heart to set up but once it is running, the HA is great. If, via the Novell management software, you take the server down, the applications migrate without a hitch. Maintenance on the machines (new NIC cards, drives, or processors) can be accomplished without any downtime. Backups still require server processing but they can be done without impinging on the LAN. The heartbeat also adds very little overhead to the LAN.

  • they want to use NT but I know Linux is better

    Perhaps it is more like "They want to use NT, but I don't want to get stuck supporting it". The other question is, should pointy haired bosses who won't be the ones using the machines be the ones making the decisions on platforms either? I think the guy asking the question is a sysadmin. From my experience, he should certainly have some input on what platform is chosen, since it will directly affect his job. Contrary to how Microsoft markets it, in my experience, NT requires not only more service and administration because it is less reliable, but it is less convenient and more complex to administer, especially as the number of servers increases. GUI based admin tools really become more of a hindrance than an advantage when you need to perform the same functions on dozens or hundreds of machines, and you start wishing for a nice, fast command line interface and/or scripting alternatives.

  • Please go to see []. They have set up many systems. They have the lead in Japan.
  • by jclip ( 113040 ) <> on Wednesday December 01, 1999 @09:14AM (#1490822) Homepage
    (background: I've done a lot of C coding using MPI on large Beowulf clusters at Caltech. I've implemented the same codes on Sun and SGI shared memory machines as well as DEC and RS/6000 clusters.)

    If you're looking to cluster for high performance, you need to decide which HPC paradigm you're going to go with and choose your clustering based on that.

    Distributed shared memory (DSM) is great on the programmer side. You've got a big steaming chunk of memory shared among processors, and a bunch of parallel threads/processes (depending on OS) acting on that chunk. DSM makes a lot of sense for database servers, and is the prevalent HPC solution among the big server companies (Sun, SGI, etc.) since multithreaded code runs dandy without any modifications. MOSIX implements DSM.

    The downside: vast memory bandwidth required for sharing and high overhead. In an educational environment (and IMHO), DSM is a Very Bad Thing, since programming DSM teaches you nothing about actually using parallelism--it's just like working in any other multithreaded environment.

    Students are better served by learning on a message-passing system, which is what Beowulf clusters are. You have a bunch of computers and a way to make them talk to one another (PVM or MPI)--"now implement some algorithms!" MP machines are [given equal-quality implementations, a big given] generally faster and more scalable than DSM machines, as well as being more "pure". Optimizing DSM programs is much easier if you have MP experience.

    Downside: MP is a pain to program and even more of a pain to debug. But students could use more suffering, right? Language support is a little iffier for MP, too, with Fortran and C being prevalent.

  • You should be first reading the Beowulf FAQ. (There are links in prev. posts), but my take for the /. readers here.

    First of all, distributed/parallel computing is not an area in which there is consensus on hardware/software systems. Though, there is an accelerating trend towards building supercomputers comprised of clusters of commodity components. The fastest computer on Earth, last time that was ASCI RED (and I hear it's gotten an upgrade!), is built as such. That is vector computers and ultra-expensive parallel computers are being phased out in favor of cluster systems.

    A cluster is basically a number of computers connected through a decent interconnection network. On each compute node a traditional OS runs. On top of the OS, a software interface that implements either a message-passing environment or a shared-memory environment sits. In some cases, it may be desirable to modify the OS itself for a better single-system image (such as MOSIX patches). Thus, a cluster is nothing but a number of connected machines. With proper software, it might be possible to run huge clusters on the internet (Check the Globus project!)

    In the design of this system, a couple of parameters must obviously be determined.
    1) Number of compute nodes
    2) Processor/Memory configuration of each compute node.
    3) The interconnection network:
    a) Network interface of each compute node
    b) The switch that is used to connect each machine.

    An incorrect estimation of these parameters may give rise to a very sub-optimal hardware configuration. That is the network must be fasst enough to account for the messages being sent, the memory must be JUST large enought to support the granularity of processing, etc. I advise you to read some introductory text on parallel programming before embarking on a cluster effort.

    Notice that there is no SINGLE piece of software that will magically parallelize and distribute your applications gracefully. You will find that explicitly parallel or distributed applications will run much more efficiently. While you can get a global process implementation, or even shared-mem implementations with some software, the real "speedup" is going to be observed for explicitly parallel programs, for instance linear algebra libraries designed to run on message passing architectures.

    Finally, let me give you a list of component we're in the process of acquiring.

    32 PII-450, 128 MByte compute nodes with 3COM Fast Etherlink 100Base-TX
    1 master node, a plain PIII-450, Gigabit ethernet and another NIC to connect to internet, some megs of disk
    1 devel workstation, plain PIII-450...
    3COM SuperStack II 3900 36-port 100Base-TX, 1 1000Base-SX managed switch
    32-port (hopefully) multi-port serial board (you use this for diagnostics)

    The software will simply be the stable Debian release, on the compute nodes not much software will run. Of course the lam package will be resident since it is a pretty good MPI implementation. The server will be uplinked to the switch with 1000Base-SX so that it can act as a synchronizing source (you know, beowulf master node, file server, etc.) The multi-port serial board provides a shell over the serial cables to each compute nodes, that gives you a good chance for repair when a node goes down.

    Keep clustering,

  • I always hated DCL and found navigating the VMS file systems and directory structure

    I don't mean to flame you, and my reply is based on 7 years of working at DEC in a non-software engineering job. Plus, I took computer programming when the computer lab at MIT used a VAX 11/780 :^)

    I found DCL to be very consitent in the format of all commands. If you want to see a value or setting you use SHOW.. if you want to set one, you use SET. If you want to find the file foo in all of your subdirectories, you say DIR[...]foo.txt . If you want to move to a specifice directory, you use SET DEF [whereiamnow.whereiwanttobe]

    The documentation is excellent, even if it spans something like 13 3" thick 3ring binders

    The VMS file versioning was also inconvenient

    Why? whenever you save a file, its version number goes up by 1. So when you say SEDT LOGIN.COM you by default open the most recent version of LOGIN.COM, and when you save your changes a new file is written called LOGIN.COM;2

    You don't need to worry about the version # unless you want to look at your old versions (all are saved by default).

    Oh, and if for some reason you unplug your microvax accidentaly while editing the file, (the only way a non-sysadmin user can make it crash) you can recover from the journal file which is created, by default, with the command EDT/RECOVER LOGIN.COM, which has captured all the keystrokes of you editing session, and will redo them at warp speed on the screen while you watch.

    I really hated VMS's error messages, which were always nearly
    indecipherable and full of %%%% signs. Blech.

    I found most of these self-explanatory, but they can be looked up in the documentation

    Sometimes I wonder, with a bemused grin: What if Ken Olsen had said "The future of computing is cheap, cheap, cheap hardware with a free operating system. Design a cheap vax for home users. Bypass and ignore the DEC standards which add millions of dollars of costs to our hardware. Don't send this product to the Maynard testing lab for 10g operation shock and vibration, don't worry about the noise levels, and don't test it at 50 deg. C. Oh, and put a version of VMS on it which is included free with the Hardware"

    Oh I know! I'd be living in the Saychelles on the proceeds of my DEC stock ;^)

  • Sure you can get Intel boxes for a dime a dozen...

    Hardware costs are the same or slightly lower for Linux, because Linux has lower hardware requirements.

    sure linux is free.

    Linux development tools are also much cheaper than those for Windows, and this is a direct issue because the kind of apps that are run on a Beowulf type machine are typically homegrown.

    Sure Windows costs money to buy.

    Windows costs a lot more than you might even think by the time you add in all the add-on software and development tools you would need to build a cluster and development environment. We are talking 10's of thousands of dollars difference for a few dozen nodes.

    BUT they both require something that costs alot: service.

    And they both require it. That is true of any type of computer system. Nothing I've seen would tell me that there is any reason to expect that Windows would cost less for service, support and administration than Linux, in fact from what I've seen, and despite Microsoft's marketing, it is the opposite.

    Beowulf clusters are potential security risks if not properly administered and kept patched up to date.

    The same thing is true of Windows boxes. The same thing is true of any type of system. Actually most Beowulf boxes are hidden away behind firewalls and not something that is accessable to every Joe random student and outsider, so you are overstating the relative security risk compared to any other computer system.

    Installation and maintanance require *good* sysadmins. What's the average salary of a sysadmin?

    It's not insignificant, but it is cheaper around most major universities (especially since they have the advantages of indentured servants... err... coop and graduate students and generally depressed markets for tech staff). And from what I've seen in the university environments, it is a lot easier to find people with skills in UNIX/Linux administration than it is to find MSCEs. Also in my experience UNIX/Linux not only require less administration work because they are more reliable, it is easier for a smaller number of admins to administrate a larger number of *nix boxes than Windows.

    Look at what you currently have in house for expertise.

    It sounds like this guy is one of the in-house sysadmins. Most universities have more in-house expertise in UNIX/Linux for large scale implementations, which is one of the big reasons that all of the big research orgs are using Linux for their Beowulf clusters.

  • Just throwing out a new Appleseed thread because I think it deserves it. I wrote an article on the clustering project at the UCLA Physics department nearly a year ago. They had achieved spectacular results using 300HHz Beige G3's and 100BaseT. Very simple setup using off-the-shelf hardware. I do not know if they have looked into using Firewire or Gigabit Ethernet and/or the new G4's yet. But, I would expect that the performance from a 8 or 16 box cluster of G4's with Gigibit Ethernet would pretty much blow away a beowulf cluster in both the performance and price categories. As for NT... don't make me laugh. Doctor Viktor Decyk is the project coordinator and would be glad to speak to you I am sure. The project website has been posted in a previous thread. Connor W. Anderson IT Manager Department of Radiology Univerisity of Chicago
  • This is different from Beowulf cluster in that you have two networks going one low-latency/low-bandwidth and one high-latency/high-bandwidth. This is what Avalon [] did, though with an out of the box Parallel port network, rather than a parallel port network optimized for message passing parallel processing.

    Depending on what you need the cluster for you should adapt network at your clustering technology.

    KAOS []
    PAPERS []

  • My questions are:
    1) Have I missed any other serious competitor in the cluster field?

    You sure want to try the newly released GPL program ALINKA LCM [] to do the management and configuration of Linux beowulf-type clusters.
    Once installed, the software can automatically setup from the network a beowulf cluster (with or without using the hard disks) within 2 minutes. With this software, it is dead easy to build an "instant beowulf" cluster...
    The current version is 1.1.3 and can be considered as a beta release, although some sites use ALINKA LCM v1.1.3 in production. If you wish to know more about ALINKA LCM, you can read the on-line documentation here [] . ALINKA provides software tools for commodity clusters running Linux since August 1999. Customers of ALINKA include the French CEA (Center of Atomic Energy) and public research laboratories.
    The ALINKA company provides commercial support for ALINKA LCM and also sells a GUI for ALINKA LCM, called ALINKA RAISIN [], running within a web browser.
    You can check [] for more information on this new killer software !
  • Maybe I should clarify what I meant by bad SMP performance: of course, an SMP machine will be faster than a singe-CPU machine, but: a) you're not gonna get anywhere near (n-1)*100% (n=number of processors) speed increase. b) Not all utilities, helper progs, etc. know about or take into consideration SMP. I could live with these problems...

    But the real kicker is this: No CPU affinity. I.e. the kernel doesn't stick a job to one CPU and let it crunch away there; instead, it dynamically load-balances all jobs around all available CPUs. This may not be too bad on a single-user desktop machine, but for a Beowulf cluster is horrendous because you loose all the advantages of CPU cache. Especially if, like yours truly, you are working with Xeons. They might as well be Pentiums, or for that matter Celerons.

    Of course, you can always wait for 2.4.x or just use single-CPU machines, if you have the space, air conditioning and patience ;-)...

    engineers never lie; we just approximate the truth.
  • but you are dead wrong about file versioning. I regard this as the most useful OS feature ever invented. I truly miss it when using other operating systems.

    I don't like versioning that happens so automatically. Having version control available when I want it is a good thing, having it forced on me all the time can be annoying. It is probably a matter of personal preference, but I just didn't like the way that it was implemented in VMS. Something like RCS/CVS/PVCS is more what I am comfortable with. To add insult to injury, it tended to cause directories not only to fill up with extraneous garbage that required time to clean out, it also tended to screw people over on disk quotas if they were negligent in keeping things tidy.

  • ATM is not necessarilly the best connectivity solution for this particular application, nor is routing. ATM is a cell-based OSI layer 2 technology that breaks each cell down into a 53 bytes. On an OC-3 (155Mbps) one can incur quite a bit of overhead for LAN-based traffic so you won't necessarilly see your full 155Mbps of traffic. ATM works well for native ATM devices that require real QoS and are able to manage the setup and tear down of the various types of circuits that are available in an ATM cloud. IP in all it's forms have to be adapted to ATM in one of a couple of ways, LAN emulation being one of the most popular. Setting up permanent point to point PVCs is also another way to do it.

    One of the qualitative differences between clustering and MP is that in a clustering environment one has to be able to write applications that can be made parallel and are capable of taking advantage of the massive amounts of CPU time available while not suffering from the relatively small amounts of memory bandwidth available. Most ACs don't understand this, so we get comments like "I want to run quake on a Beowulf". It follows that increasing the amount of bandwidth between machines will make the clustering environment less restrictive from a memory bandwidth point-of-view. One never wants to "route" in a clustered environment. Devices that make forwarding decisions at OSI Layer 3 are all inherently slower than devices that make forwarding decisions at OSI Layer 2. There are L3 switches that forward packets at wire speed, but these are expensive and pointless to use in this type of environment, as it's not needed. Basically, one would want to put their cluster into a single subnet (and vlan) in a completely switched environment and endeavour to minimize broadcast traffic. At a minimum I would recommend a completely switched 100Mbps environment for a low-cost cluster.

    It should be noted though, that all 100BaseTX switches are *not* non-blocking. I wouldn't consider using anything that isn't. If one requires additional bandwidth for a particular type of application there are a couple of other options. Gigabit ethernet will provide approximately 3 times the bandwidth of fast ethernet in a Linux machine, mainly being limited by the throughput of the stack. One also may want to consider HIPPI if the need is there. HIPPI is very very expensive, and to the best of my knowledge only available from a handful of vendors. One of those being Essential/ODS (my previous employer). I believe that there is a driver for Linux for the Essential/ODS HIPPI NIC, though I'm not certain what the throughput is. HIPPI is being used by the big boys, Sandia National Labs, Nasa Ames, Lawrence Livermore, mostly in SGI environments. Beyond HIPPI, there is something called GSN (Gigabyte Switch Network) a 6.4Gbps environment being adopted as the next level of bandwidth by both ODS and SGI. ODS filled the first order for GSN switches sometime in January of 1999 I believe. I'm not even sure there is a NIC available for the type of hardware that's supported by Linux. For info on HIPPI and GSN stuff check out ODS' web site [] I would recommend HIPPI, then Gigabit Ethernet for a high performance cluster. The Lanblazer from ODS and the Cajunswitch 550 (the same switch, one is OEMed from the other)for gigabit ethernet or fast ethernet. In addition, there are products from Extreme Networks, Fore Systems (Berkeley Systems Gig E stuff), HP and I'm sure there are a few others. Most of the stuff from the top 3 (Cisco, Nortel, 3Com) are not non-blocking, one should do the research before making a purchase.

  • So another problem is that most of these clusters are 32 bit. I am constantly banging my head against that fact when I try to port codes from big iron to clusters. Makes me wanna kill myself sometimes...trying to figure out how to get a multi-thousand line 64-bit fortran code to run on a 32-bit machine with half-assed compilers.
  • Plus, I took computer programming when the computer lab at MIT used a VAX 11/780 :^)

    When I started college they used a 5 node cluster (four 11/780's and an 11/785) for most of the undergraduate class work at the university I attended. The Com Sci department had their own VAX 11/780 running 4.2 BSD (later upgraded to 4.3), and several other departments had their own VAXen running BSD. I later went to work for one of those departments.

    The documentation is excellent, even if it spans something like 13 3" thick 3ring binders

    Much to the dismay of the DEC field service rep, when I worked at a university for a department where we ran BSD, we bought a new VAX, and promptly file-13'd the VMS doc and recycled all those bright orange 3-ring binders for two whole sets of BSD docs.

    Why? whenever you save a file, its version number goes up by 1.

    I don't like versioning that doesn't happen when I want it to, to the files I want to keep under version control. I prefer an approach like RCS/CVS/PVCS.

    You don't need to worry about the version # unless you want to look at your old versions (all are saved by default).

    It was the 'all are saved by default' that many people ran afoul of, as it chewed up all their disk quota and required constant vigilance to keep things tidy.

    Oh, and if for some reason you unplug your microvax accidentaly while editing the file, (the only way a non-sysadmin user can make it crash) you can recover from the journal file which is created, by default, with the command EDT/RECOVER LOGIN.COM, which has captured all the keystrokes of you editing session, and will redo them at warp speed on the screen while you watch.

    EDT... ack, that gives me the heebie-jeebies. Never did like that or TPU (the other display editor). Of course it could be worse, if you didn't get on a DEC terminal (a lot of the labs had ADM3a's, ADM5's or TVI910's), you were stuck with using SOS (the horror!). On the other hand if you were using one of the BSD machines, you could run vi just fine even on the ADM's which were dumb as rocks. BTW, vi also has a recover mode.

    What if Ken Olsen had said

    Instead he said "UNIX is snake oil", and history played out the way it did. Ah well, DEC built pretty nice hardware in those days, but most of us where I worked/went to school were more happy running BSD than VMS, especially because DEC's licensing and maintenance/support contracts for VMS made running VMS cost prohibitive. Today I can do everything and more on my cheapo home Linux box than I could do back then on $100K VAXen.

  • gcc 2.8.1 under linux actually has okay 64-bit support under Linux, in my experience. Not my #1-most-favoritest platform for such things, but usable at least in the C-sphere.

    Alpha cluster are 64-happy, or maybe an SGI cluster (tho' SGI's 64-bit support was horrid last I tried).

  • SCI is actually a CC-NUMA system.
    You should be able to use any SMP enabled (threaded) program as long as you recompile it.
    That's the beauty of CC-NUMA, no rewriting necessary.
  • The next Suns are going to be cluster machines. Solaris 8 will support a single operating system running over an internal cluster.
  • But, I would expect that the performance from a 8 or 16 box cluster of G4's with Gigibit Ethernet would pretty much blow away a beowulf cluster in both the performance and price categories.

    I seriously doubt that. To use the AltiVec part of the G4 (which is what gives its absurdly high peak performance), you need to be either hand-writing PPC/AltiVec assembly code or using a vectorizing PPC/AltiVec compiler, and I have not heard of *any* of the latter. Also, the memory system on the G4 isn't much (if any) better than that on a standard Pentium III, which frankly sucks (~300MB/s). A Beowulf cluster comprised of Alphas with a Myrinet network will likely wipe the walls with a similarly sized G4 cluster with Gigabit Ethernet, and will cost about as much -- large GigE switches are expensive.

    8 DS10 1Us (@$3k) + 8 Myrinet cards (@$1.4k) + 1 16-port Myrinet switch (@$4k) = $39.2k

    8 G4s (@$2.5k) + 8 Gigabit Ethernet cards (@$0.7) + 1 8-port Gigabit Ethernet switch (@$15k) = $40.6k

  • Novell is also very expensive.

    Compared to Linux, perhaps, but not that much worse than NT...

  • Um... yeah. NT Doesn't scale by default, as in processes must take advantage of the NT Cluster Services API -and- do other funky things to scale. Off the top of my head, the only things that will run faster on two machines are Oracle and IIS (feel free to add to the list, these are what I know). IIS will run on up to two NT servers, Oracle will run on more if you can get the shared-disk hardware configured :-). Exchange won't scale :-). Before MS killed Alpha-NT, Oracle and Digital had (I believe) a 6-way scaling demonstration cluster. I'm not aware of any more-than-2-way NT clusters in production, but what do I know.

    Setting up an NT cluster is a non-trivial exercise (we did it for our HA services, but we backed down as the clustering sw caused as many crashes as it saved us from) (yes, we used an MCSE). It's about as hard as setting up any other clustered system :-) But monkeys like me can "run" it with a little expert guidance.

    ObUnix: Of course, 8 way Unix and VMS clusters are old hat. Linux is still developing into the HA and scalability market, but it has roots to grow on.

  • A partial solution (of course not one they told anyone about at the U), but I still prefer a system that I can check files in only when I want. Having it auto-delete versions means that if I want to save the nth version and not have it purged I have to copy it to some other filename. The auto file versioning also doesn't do much to help with multiple developer versioning and synchronization that checkin/checkout systems deal with. If you want to keep a large number of versions around, a system that stores deltas instead of whole files is much more disk space efficient (not that big a deal these days, but back in the 80's when I used VMS it was a huge deal).

  • First of all, forgive my not-so-good english but it is not my mother language (I live outside the US & UK).
    So: It is true that I am not going to make any decision. I am a computer administrator, no darn executive. What I _CAN_ do though, is present my superiors with facts. This is what I am trying to find and why I asked slashdot users on the first place. As for what I know, yes I do know Linux is better than NT. I have a long background of Unix (or Unix-like, for that matter) based computers administration, and I consider it critical that this University's users have access to a high availability super computer. If this makes me a poster child, I accept this attribution. What I also accept is that my question was not clear as to the needs. What we need is a fail-proof number-cruncher. We need a system that can carry long computations (which could mean a beowulf cluster) and also be highly available (which I am not yet sure what it means). We have already setup a high-availability SUN cluster with 2 SUN250, but that will act as a web & mail server only, plus its cost is somewhat big. What I want is to built a system for the users to log in, and run their simulations & stuff. This should definitely be up on a 24x7 basis.
    Now as to PVM, with which I do have experience, I must let you know that it cannot be considered a cluster solution as it is not an integrated solution. PVM is just a parallel programming API, just like MPI etc. PVM can be used with most cluster systems (Beowulf for example), but that's all. What we need is more than parallel computing, period.
  • I see! Well, I think I am getting ~(n-1)*96% with the 2.2.x (couldn't bring myself to use 95, too M$ for me at the moment). With the 2.0.x kernel, I was getting probably ~(n-1)*80% Much MUCH better than NT with about ~(n-1)*30%. (n=2)

    I think my performance does in fact vary depending on what I do. GIMP is SLOW by comparison, but compiling is rather fast. This is compared to the celeron machine, and is more a feel than numbers.

    I can understand that if the kernel load-balances by the instant, then you will have no benifit form cache. That would explain GIMP and other graphical stuff being slow. I can also see how having one processor complete a task instead of splitting the task can allow a large cache to be used better. Heck, a small cache would be used better too!

    I will have to do some more research to see how Linux really handles this. I am sure that there is some awareness in the development community if this is the case. Also I doubt that a SMP machine can achieve (n-1)*100%. The best I think can be expected, and I think would be usefull is (n-1)*98% (love them RPG 98%max values;-)) which would be impressive I think.

    If as you say dynamic load balancing can hurt a process, I am sure that some rules can be added to improve the load balancing to utilize the cache. Although I belive that there is a lot done with this already. With an application to look at processor load in X, it would show a lot more being done on processor0 and less on processor1. Rarely did the load look the same. Problem here is my linux box got fragged(hard drive failure), and I reinstalled a different distribution and I don't remember the utilities I was using. I was running SUSE 6.0 and before that slackware 3.5, and curently slackware 4.0.

    Again I admit a failure of my memmory and cannot give specifics to back up what I say.
  • It's hard to squeeze a 100GByte address space into 2GByte chunks...

    In my opinion if you go with 32bit CPUs in your cluster you get what you deserve. Go directly to 64bit CPUS, do not pass GO, do not try to save $200. In the long run it isn't worth it.

  • You appear to be confused about the whole purpose of VMS' file versioning.

    I'm not confused, I just have no use for VMS's file versioning. As I said, I haven't had the misfortune of using VMS since the 80's and frankly, it isn't likely I'll ever be subjected to using VMS again (since Compaq is pretty much burying it), so it really doesn't matter.

  • CodeWarrior Pro 5 supports AltiVec.
  • Oh gawd...
    You can't be serious..
    Solaris on sparc has a huge advantage over linux: Fiber Channel.
    Their SPARCStorage Array, 5200 and 5400 storage arrays an be attatched to as many machines as need be with a fiber channel hub, and have 1Gbit transfer rates. Sorry, but at this point, Sun storage is just darn better then what we can use for linux, but it is quite expensive.
  • sorry but altivec isnt supported with linux. or beowulf. and altivec is only FPU.
  • Yeah, that's what I'm saying, but Beowulf doesn't scale either, without putting a lot of *programming* work into it. That's what work I was talking about (although there is some sysadmin work that's not exactly straightforward in an NT cluster).

    And NT has scaled to 8-way in demos, but I'm unaware of real-world examples...

    Don't get me wrong -- I'd rather run on a Unix cluster any day, but Linux just isn't there yet for most applications (since most applications require more than message-passing for distributed calculation, which is what Beowulf is good at).

  • Yeah, that's what I'm saying, but Beowulf doesn't scale either, without putting a lot of *programming* work into it. That's what work I was talking about (although there is some sysadmin work that's not exactly straightforward in an NT cluster).

    And NT has scaled to 8-way in demos, but I'm unaware of real-world examples...

    Don't get me wrong -- I'd rather run on a Unix cluster any day, but Linux just isn't there yet for most applications (since most applications require more than message-passing for distributed calculation, which is what Beowulf is good at).

    blush -- that's what I get for not previewing

  • I thought Unisys did large memory support for Linux as well as some other things.

    Anyway, they'd probably love to have a version of Linux that would run on these monsters because it would their rotting corpse right back in the midrange market with Sun and HP. I'm sure they don't believe that hitching to NT is the greatest thing, but without a modern Unix, what are they supposed to do?

"Remember, extremism in the nondefense of moderation is not a virtue." -- Peter Neumann, about usenet