Bowie State Univ. launches XSEED Xserve cluster

Bowie, Md.'s Bowie State University has launched a new 224-node High Performance Computing (HPC) cluster based on Apple's Xserve G5. Called XSEED, the system won't just be used for mathematics and computer science -- its administrators plan to see the system used campus-wide, for arts and sciences.

The cluster utilizes 224 individual Xserve G5s, each equipped with two 2GHz processors, 2GB of RAM and 80GB hard disks. The system uses a Myrinet 4GB/sec switch for internode communication. Apple's Xsan storage area network technology is also being used; Matties estimates XSEED has about 5.5 terabytes (TB) of total storage online.

Bowie State University President Dr. Calvin Lowe said XSEED is his university's first HPC cluster on this scale. "We've had smaller clusters in the past," he told MacCentral. "But I have to say that as of today, this is the fastest, largest HPC at any university in Maryland."

Lowe said that XSEED's name was inspired by the story of Johnny Appleseed, the American frontiersman who, as legend has it, spread his apple seeds throughout the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, giving rise to countless apple trees and orchards along the way. Lowe hopes that XSEED will similarly plant the seeds of inspiration among Bowie State University's faculty, staff and students to see how diversely an HPC can be used.

"We hope to change the name to XCEED, because we expect this system to exceed our expectations," Lowe added.

Quick setup, easy installation, fast results

Dr. Mark Matties, professor of computer science at the University, is technical lead on the XSEED project. He said that from start to finish, it only took a few months to get XSEED up and running. The project cost about US$1 million.

"With the number of students I had -- a dozen, more or less -- we were able to get it constructed and up pretty quickly," Matties said.

The creation of XSEED took place in different stages: Half the systems came online at one time, then the other half later; the entire system was then moved to a newly renovated facility.

Although XSEED was first put together last summer, it was only later that the system moved to its permanent home after an area had been renovated for it. XSEED has its own 100 kilowatt power distribution system and 20 tons of cooling -- more than is needed for now, Matties said.

Matties couldn't give a precise number on the system's computational ability -- those numbers are still being produced -- but he said that XSEED's theoretical maximum is somewhere in the vicinity of 3.58 teraflops. Matties is confident that once XSEED's Linpack benchmarks are done, the system will be ranked as one of the 100 fastest supercomputers in the world, as listed by the TOP500, a semiannual list of the world's fastest supercomputers. Matties said his team plans to submit their numbers in time for the 25th TOP500 list, which will be published in June.

Apple shines

Matties and Lowe both complimented Apple on its help in setting up and supporting XSEED.

"They're just amazing," said Matties. "They're not just a vendor that would drop their hardware off at the door. They've been incredible with support and helping us get set up."

"In my estimation, Apple has been really outstanding," Lowe added.

Matties said Mac OS X's Unix underpinnings have certainly helped get users up to speed. "My grad sutdents are more experienced and comfortable with it," he added.

"It's great Unix," he said. "Mac OS X is a rock-solid operating system."

Non-traditional HPC use

"Our goal was to create a general-purpose high performance cluster that would not only serve our science, math and computer science departments but could also be used for fine arts and other applications," said Matties.

In addition to the usual suite of software installed with Mac OS X Server, XSEED has been loaded with tools like Wolfram Research Inc.'s computation software Mathematica, BioTeam's iNquiry bioinformatics bundle and even Pixar's 3D rendering software RenderMan.

Dr. Diane Krichmar is special assistant to the president and XSEED's administrative lead. She and Dr. Lowe will lead a pilot program this fall to demonstrate XSEED's capabilities in a non-traditional HPC role when they use it to teach an undergraduate course in social science.

"We'll pull together teams of social science students and computer science students together, so they'll get a feel for working as a team of social scientists. Social science studies how groups of people interact, and we'll be able to use XSEED to model that behavior," she said.

Krichmar offered as an example the study of how HIV/AIDS can spread in a community. With XSEED, her students will be able to model how social remedies such as education can affect the spread of HIV.

"This sort of thing isn't usually done in social science undergraduate settings. It raises what students can learn to a whole new bar."

Lowe and Krichmar hope that the pilot course will guide the way for Bowie State University's other faculty to think of creative ways they can use XSEED themselves.

"XSEED has applications in all disciplines," said Krichmar. "We want students to be excited and enthusiastic about its use."

"XSEED is causing a great deal of excitement on our campus," Lowe agreed. "Once people start thinking about the possibilities of how XSEED can be used, they can't wait to get their hands on it."

Updated 11:25 AM 03/12/05: Due to a reporting error, the number of Xserves was incorrectly reported as 112; it is 224.

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