Avalon press release

Robert Harley (Robert.Harley@inria.fr)
Fri, 19 Jun 1998 22:33:39 +0200 (MET DST)

Appended below, a press release from Los Alamos about their Alpha
Linux cluster. There was supposed to be a quote by me but they
released it early :(

The Beowulf software is now "unavailable pending export control
review". Rumor has it that the NSA is responsible, which would
suggest they're afraid it could be used for code-breaking... which of
course it can! However I suspect it's just generic government fear of
what they don't control.


ObNSAfood: assassinate Minihan bomb Prizren Desvignes covert sniper BND


LOS ALAMOS, N.M., June 18, 1998 - A supercomputer built from ordinary
personal computer components is among the 500 fastest computers in the
world, an international survey reported today. The Avalon computer
cost just $150,000 to build, and can compute more than 20 billion
mathematical operations in a second, said Michael Warren of Los Alamos
National Laboratory's Theoretical Astrophysics Group.

Avalon made the 315th spot on the 11th TOP500 list released at the
Supercomputer '98 conference in Mannheim, Germany. The list is the
best-known ranking of supercomputer performance.

"It's now possible for a small group of motivated people to design and
build their own parallel supercomputer using off-the-shelf computer
parts and easily available software," Warren said. "Only a handful of
companies in the world produce a computer this fast, and the least
expensive costs well over a million dollars."

Avalon is built out of 68 high-end personal computers that use the
Digital Equipment Corporation Alpha microprocessor, connected by 3Com
network switches similar to those found in a university department or
small business. Each processor in the Los Alamos supercomputer is an
ordinary PC, using the same type of memory and disk drives found in a
computer on an office desktop.

"Each of these processors theoretically is capable of performing over
one billion operations a second, and we bought them at consumer
prices," said Warren.

But hardware is only half of the equation. Software is the hardest
part of getting many processors to work together on the same
problem. The Los Alamos team used the open source Linux operating
system and other software available on the Internet.

"The key to the success of these machines lies in their software, and
the most important part of that software is the Linux operating
system," Warren explained. "Linux can be obtained at no cost through
the Internet, but that is minor compared to its other advantages. In
my experience, the reliability and performance of Linux has no peer.

"We have stressed Linux well beyond where one would expect it to fail,
and it has performed admirably. Because it is being developed as open
source software, we can go to the source code and fix many problems
immediately," Warren continued. "If we can't fix it ourselves, we can
tap the huge pool of Linux expertise on the Internet."

While some question the reliability, complexity and difficulty of a
"do-it-yourself" supercomputer, Warren and his team had no problems.

"We got most of the parts for Avalon on Friday, April 10. Three days
later, the machine was computing at over 10 billion operations per
second." he said.

By Wednesday, which was the deadline for TOP500 list entries, Avalon
had achieved 19.2 billion floating point operations per second. The
computer hasn't suffered a single hardware failure or operating system
crash on any of the 68 processors during the last six weeks.

Working with Warren to build Avalon were David Neal, systems
administrator for Los Alamos' Center for Nonlinear Studies, and David
Moulton and Aric Hagberg, both from the Mathematical Modeling and
Analysis Group.

In its short life, Avalon already has performed some significant
scientific computations.

One of the first simulations followed the evolution of a shock wave
through 60 million atoms. The simulation ran for more than 300 hours
on Avalon, calculating about 10 billion floating point operations per

Physicist Peter Lomdahl, who won the Gordon Bell prize for significant
achievement in parallel processing using the Connection Machine 5
supercomputer at Los Alamos said the Avalon system was extremely easy
to use.

"We ported our molecular dynamics code over in about a day and have
been able to perform state-of-the-art simulations of shock-waves in
metals that ordinarily would have required the Lab's large-scale
shared-memory parallel systems" Lomdahl said. "Not only does the
Avalon system run slightly faster than a similarly sized commercial
system, it does it at a tenth of the cost, and is much easier to use."

Warren will use the machine in his computational astrophysics
research, performing simulations of galaxies.

"I am interested in simulating the evolution of the universe from its
very early stages up to the present day," Warren said. "We can test
different ideas about the way the universe is put together by
comparing the galaxies simulated inside the computer with real
observations made by the latest generation of telescopes. Avalon puts
the computational power we need to do those simulations inside our own
building, at a price we can afford.

In its "spare time," Avalon helped crack the Certicom Elliptic Curve Cryptosystem challenge, winning a $4,000 prize that was donated to the Free Software
Foundation. The Foundation led the development of many of the software tools Avalon uses.

The code-breaking calculations ran at the same time as other large
simulations, but only made progress when the computer didn't have
anything else to do.

Initial funds to buy and build Avalon came from the Center for
Nonlinear Studies. Other funding came from the Laboratory Directed
Research and Development program and the Theoretical Division. Shi-yi
Chen, deputy leader of the Center for Nonlinear Studies, said "Avalon
will be used for fundamental research in nonlinear science for a
variety of areas, including applied mathematics, materials science,
complex systems and climate modeling."

Warren has used parallel computers throughout his career, including
several which have held records as world's fastest at the time. In
1996, he built his first off-the shelf computer, Loki, which last year
won the Gordon Bell prize in the "price-performance" category.

"Loki proved itself as the most cost-effective way to perform
large-scale scientific simulations last year, and now Avalon provides
ten times that performance for only three times the price," Warren

Computers using off-the-shelf technology like Loki and Avalon are
called "Beowulf" computers, after the project begun by Thomas Sterling
at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

"Avalon is a dramatic demonstration of the long-term potential of the
Beowulf model for scalable, high-end computing to perform real-world
applications in science and engineering at unprecedented
price-performance ratios," Sterling said. "Since 1994 when the
earliest Beowulf systems were developed at NASA, a rapidly growing
community world-wide has emerged to apply the Beowulf approach to a
broad range of important problems.

"Avalon represents a new generation of Beowulf systems - breaking new ground in performance and extending their utility to new and important areas," Sterling said.

Warren thinks that Avalon's success is only the beginning.

"In the future, I imagine hundreds or thousands of machines of this
type, working on important science, engineering and business
problems," he said. "You will probably never hear about those
computers, because they are simply a tool; the problems that they
solve and the progress they enable is the important news."

More information about Avalon is available at the following URL on the
World Wide Web: cnls.lanl.gov/avalon

Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of
California for the U.S. Department of Energy.