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For Linux, Supercomputers R Us

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols | Aug. 7, 2015
Supercomputers are serious things, called on to do serious computing. They tend to be engaged in serious pursuits like atomic bomb simulations, climate modeling and high-level physics. Naturally, they cost serious money. At the very top of the latest Top500 supercomputer ranking is the Tianhe-2 supercomputer at China's National University of Defense Technology. It cost about $390 million to build.

As for the Linux connection, that all started in 1994 at the Goddard Space Flight Center with the first Beowulf supercomputer.

By our standards, there wasn't much that was super about the first Beowulf. But in its day, the first homemade supercomputer, with its 16 Intel 486DX processors and 10Mbps Ethernet for the bus, was great. Beowulf, designed by NASA contractors Don Becker and Thomas Sterling, was the first "maker" supercomputer. Its "compute components," 486DX PCs, cost only a few thousand dollars. While its speed was only in single-digit gigaflops, Beowulf showed you could build supercomputers from commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and Linux.

I wish I'd had a part in its creation, but I'd already left Goddard by 1994 for a career as a full-time technology journalist. Darn it!

But even from this side of my reporter's notebook, I can still appreciate how COTS and open-source software changed supercomputing forever. I hope you can too. Because, whether it's a cluster of Raspberry Pis or a monster with over 3 million Intel Ivy Bridge and Xeon Phi chips, almost all of today's supercomputers trace their ancestry to Beowulf.


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