College of LAS « Illinois


Making Supercomputing Child's Play

Supercomputing Photo

Chemist Todd Martinez raised a few eyebrows last fall when he ordered several PlayStation® 2s for his research lab. But entertainment was not why he and curiosity-driven undergraduates were soon spending hours glued to the game consoles. They were converting these toys into supercomputers.

Martinez relies on computers for churning through dense mathematical formulas for calculating such things as the motion of electrons in molecules. The computations can take from days to months to complete. He hopes to race through these calculations by linking several of the PlayStations together to form a computing system with the power equivalent to a supercomputer. Although the use of game consoles is unique, this notion of assembling powerful computers from "off-the-shelf" components is the trend in supercomputing design.

"It wasn't long ago that supercomputers were built from pricey, custom-made components," says Martinez. "Some still are. But increasingly, computer scientists are focusing their attention on designing software and high-speed networks that can make roomfuls of standard computers work together as a single powerful unit. The trend makes sense economically."

That's certainly true with PlayStation 2, which is cheap even by computer standards—less than $300. The game consoles also offer impressive computing capabilities. But it was the machine's complex graphics that caught Martinez's attention when he first examined his son's PlayStation. The hardware structure required for rapidly rendering the game's animations was similar to what he needed for his massive molecular calculations. The machine is essentially a supercomputer with a "parallel" architecture that can perform more than one calculation at a time. But for it to have the power of a supercomputer, dozens to hundreds of the machines must be corralled to function as a single machine.

As Martinez is discovering, designing software that can orchestrate that kind of cooperation is not child's play. Martinez, engineering professor Sanjay Patel, and engineering student Pavan Tumati already have some scientific software running on the PlayStation. But other students are modifying Linux—a free operating system that is widely used for "cluster" supercomputing—after abandoning efforts to reconfigure the machine's Sony operating system. Martinez and Patel have applied to the National Science Foundation for grants and are working with researchers at UI's National Center for Supercomputing Applications, who are designing "cluster" software.

"If we can get the PlayStations to work together," says Martinez, "the price tag on supercomputing will drop to a level that even high school students can use—for science, of course."

Photo by Thompson-McClellan
Summer 2002