Green Destiny draws cheers and jeers

The license plates in New Mexico salute the state as a "Land of Enchantment," and on a warm Friday morning a group of scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory made sure the state lived up to its billing.

At a complex surrounded by scrub-covered plateaus, three Los Alamos researchers last week unveiled a potential breakthrough in high-performance computing, a 240-processor Beowulf cluster dubbed Green Destiny, that literally made the mouths of other scientists drop open when they saw the system for the first time. As with any attempt at something new, however, some of the mouths opened to express excitement, while others opened to express dismay with the project's direction.

Dot-coms have died, sales are slow and layoffs continue, but the work being done at Los Alamos for the most part triggered a refreshing rush of enthusiasm in the technophiles present. For a moment, the introduction of a supercomputer that can fit inside a closet countered the gloom hovering over the technology industry. Even luminaries such as Gordon Bell, often called the father of high performance computing, and Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux operating system, who have had their fair share of innovative success, celebrated the arrival of this new, unexpected technology.

Green Destiny was originally conceived not as a supercomputer but as a powerful Web server for the Research and Development in Advanced Network Technology (RADIANT) group at Los Alamos, according to Wu-chun Feng, RADIANT's team leader. Feng thought RLX Technologies Inc.'s blade servers would be best suited for handling research documents and contact information. Then Feng, along with fellow RADIANT researchers Michael Warren and Eric Weigle, decided that RLX's innovative server design, coupled with the low power consumption of Transmeta Corp.'s processors, might be the right combination for what they now call Supercomputing in Small Spaces.

The researchers got RLX, based in The Woodlands, Texas, to send over its System 324 server, which packs 24 server blades -- no nonsense servers stripped down to their core components -- into a chassis only 5.25 inches (13.3 cm) high. The group then started running Warren's N-body Simulation program on the servers, which is used to learn more about supernovas, and found not only that the software ran well, but also that RLX's servers required none of the maintenance needed for other larger computers at Los Alamos. The System 324 is still running nine months later without an interruption.

Twenty-four servers were not enough for Feng, and he contacted Chris Hipp, blade server pioneer and RLX's founder, to see if Los Alamos could get its hands on an entire rack of 240 blades to test Feng's theory that high-performance computing could be done in a smaller space and for less money than previously imagined.

It was this tower of blade servers named Green Destiny that sparked the cheers, and a few jeers, from the scientists here.

For many of the Los Alamos scientists, the unveiling of Green Destiny was their first introduction to blade servers -- never mind blade servers being used to build a supercomputer. The slew of expletives and exclamations that followed Feng's description of the system made it clear that the blades had captured the audience's attention. Some murmured, "Wow," while others let out multiple shouts of, "Jesus!" as their jaws dropped.

Several scientists here did not share the enthusiasm for Green Destiny, however. Los Alamos, after all, is the home to several massive supercomputers that take up entire floors of buildings and require several cooling systems shaped like mini-nuclear reactors to keep them running. These "real" supercomputers handle serious work, and some of the people running them consider Green Destiny a joke. One scientist walked out of Feng's presentation, making his feelings clear.

The controversy stems in part from Feng's decision to put 240 blade servers running on chips designed primarily for notebook computers up against the current, hulking supercomputers. With Green Destiny, Feng introduced the notion that "simply doing bigger, faster machines is not good enough any more."

Feng is the first to admit that it will take a lot of work and a bounty of creativity to lift a blade-based system on a par with current supercomputers, but he also holds to the belief that systems like Green Destiny may be the answer to problems facing supercomputing in the next 10 years.

Some of the magic in Green Destiny stems from Feng's decision to go with Transmeta chips, which rely more on software than on a high transistor count to process data. The Transmeta processors consume less energy than similar chips from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD), Feng said. Intel and AMD derive performance gains largely by following Moore's Law, which says that transistor count doubles on chips roughly every 18 months.

"Currently, our biggest concern is the continued pursuit of Moore's Law and its effect on system reliability," Feng wrote in a research paper. "The continued tracking of Moore's Law will result in the microprocessor of 2010 having over one billion transistors and dissipating over one kilowatt of thermal energy; this is considerably more energy per square centimeter than even a nuclear reactor."

Using Transmeta's chips, Feng's team was able to create a high-performance computer that sits in the hallway of a dusty warehouse where the temperature often exceeds 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Compare that to the "Q" computer, which was also unveiled Friday at Los Alamos, and which calls home a 4,043 square-meter computer room supported by special cooling equipment.

Feng does not claim Green Destiny can come close to out-computing "Q," but he will say his model of supercomputing in small places might be a more practical approach for the future.

As companies like Excite@Home Inc. look to sell off hardware to bring in extra money and as layoffs continue to hit the IT industry to the point that it often seems the end really isn't in sight, Green Destiny suggests that not all is doom and gloom. It hums away in its warehouse corner, causing some to marvel at a new approach to supercomputing and others to scoff at its mere existence.


Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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