DOE earns kudos for building fast supercomputer from spare parts

An international survey has ranked a home-brew Energy Department supercomputer as one
of the 500 fastest in the world.

Last month, the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Avalon grabbed the 315th spot on
the top 500 list at the Supercomputer ’98 conference in Mannheim, Germany. Four Los
Alamos employees in April built the Avalon over a three-day period, said Michael Warren of
the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Los Alamos, N.M., lab.

Built to run scientific simulations, such as a shock wave traveling through 60 million
atoms, the Avalon can perform 20 billion mathematical operations per second, about 100
times more than a high-end workstation, he said.

“Building it was pretty easy compared with programming,” Warren said. So far,
the only problems the group has encountered involved rebooting a processor.

Eighteen months ago, Los Alamos officials built a supercomputer from 16 Intel Pentium
Pro processors, but it ran at only one-tenth the Avalon’s speed, Warren said. The
group stayed in contact with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center employees who have built
several Beowulf supercomputers from commercial components since 1994.

The Avalon has 70 64-bit Digital Equipment Corp. Alpha processors, 70 3.2G IDE hard
drives and 8G of RAM, Warren said. The group plans to double or quadruple the memory with
low-cost RAM for $10,000.

The supercomputer runs the Linux operating system from Red Hat Software Inc. of
Research Triangle Park, N.C. The astrophysics group chose Linux both for its performance
and for access to the source code, Warren said.

The components, which include network switches from 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.,
cost Los Alamos about $150,000. Warren estimated the Avalon can perform on a level with a
$1.8 million Silicon Graphics Inc. Origin2000.  

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