Wanna Build a Supercomputer? You’ll Need Legos and Raspberry Pis…

Posted by masgeeks on Sep 14, 2012 11:28 PM EDT
Wired; By Klint Finley
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Wanna build your own supercomputer? All you need is some Legos and a few dozen Raspberry Pis. That’s Raspberry Pis — no “e.” If you can build a supercomputer with raspberry pies, do let us know. We mean those super-small Linux PCs cooked up by some brainy researchers in Britain. Yes, you’ll need Legos too — and maybe some help from the closest 6-year-old.

Wanna build your own supercomputer? All you need is some Legos and a few dozen Raspberry Pis.

That’s Raspberry Pis — no “e.” If you can build a supercomputer with raspberry pies, do let us know. We mean those super-small Linux PCs cooked up by some brainy researchers in Britain. Yes, you’ll need Legos too — and maybe some help from the closest 6-year-old.

That’s how Simon Cox and a team of engineers at Britain’s University of Southampton built their supercomputer, and they’ve the published instructions so that you can build one too. The total cost was about £2,500 — or $4,031 U.S. — not including network gear, but you can build a smaller version with four Raspberry Pis for just a few hundred dollars.

Cox says the team wants to make supercomputing accessible to hobbyists, particularly kids like his 6-year-old son, Peter. “Our goal is to get just one child somewhere to say: ‘That’s cool mum and dad, can I have a go?’”

A professor of Computational Methods at Southampton, Cox has been working to democratize supercomputing for a long time. In the late ’90s, he worked on the first Microsoft Windows-based supercomputer, bringing the cost of supercomputing down from millions of dollars to tens of thousands. The Raspberry Pi project is the next logical step.

He knows that hundreds of dollars is still quite a lot of money for a hobbyist project, especially in the developing world, but it does offer new possibilities to a much wider demographic. “Now you can show people this process of taking a big problem and breaking it up into a smaller problem,” he says.

Raspberry Pi computers aren’t very powerful and don’t even ship with their own cases. But they only cost $35. Cox bought one for his son Peter, thinking that teaching him to program would be a fun summer activity. He was right. “It was amazing to watch his eyes light up as he figured out he could type stuff in and make the computer do different things,” Cox says.

Then Cox got an e-mail from one of the U.K.’s Raspberry Pi suppliers saying it had more in stock, and he told his Southampton team they should buy a bunch of them and try building a supercomputer. Peter liked the idea too, intrigued by the thought of connecting lots of computers together to solve larger problems — so the team roped him in.

Cox admits there are better ways to build a supercomputer. Using 64 separate power supplies for each Raspberry Pi is, shall we say, inefficient. But he wanted to show people they could do this on their own at home.

That’s where the Legos come in. Cox was in Peter’s room one day when he realized they could use Legos to build the racks and cases for the supercomputer cluster. Maybe acrylic cases would be better, he says, but that would make it more than a weekend project. With Legos, people can see that they can just rack these things up themselves. They’re easily available, and they’re not too scary.

No, it’s not the most practical super computer in the world, but the graphics processing unit (GPU) on those Raspberry Pis does offer some real computational power. Cox also bought 16GB SD cards for all of them, so they have a combined storage capacity of about 1TB. That’s good enough for someone to start learning how supercomputing works.

The system uses software called The Message Passing Interface (MPI) to manage communications between all the individual nodes in the cluster. Cox acknowledges that it’s not as sophisticated as newer technologies such as Hadoop, but says that once you learn how to use MPI, you’ll be well prepared to learn how to use Hadoop because you will have learned the basic thought processes behind supercomputing.

As for the goal, he’s already heard from one person who’d been trying to get the budget to do a computer science summer camp for kids. He was finally able to get the budget for the program when he showed his director the University of Southampton’s Raspberry Pi project. “The director saw that and said; ‘Oh, you’re doing to be building cool things like this? OK then,’” Cox explains.

He says if just one kid ends up trying this out and ends up in a career in IT, he’ll be happy.

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