Hardware geeks have always built their own computers. In 1975, it was the Altair 8800. Today, it is all about the home built supercomputer. On December 2, I was among several reporters that interviewed Mark Barnell, Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) high performance computing director and Condor Cluster project engineer about the Air Force’s latest supercomputer, the Condor Cluster.
A ribbon cutting ceremony was held at the AFRL facility on December 1, making the official dedication of the new computer. At a cost of under $2 million, and using only off the shelf hardware and open source software, Barnell and his fellow engineers built a supercomputer that they believe will test out in the top thirty fastest supercomputers in the world. The heart of the Condor is 1,716 Playstation 3 gaming systems.
Barnell described the Condor as consisting of over 3,000 components and over 6 miles of cabling. There are 1,716 Playstation 3 systems, 84 servers and the entire system requires far less electricity to operate and cool than the typical supercomputer. Unlike most supercomputers, the Condor can also be put into “sleep” mode to save energy when not in use.
He made the point that the Condor was built with certain applications in mind. As a purpose built system, it does some tasks far better than the usual general purpose supercomputer. One of the applications involves optical character recognition (OCR) and the ability to accurately interpret documents to recover missing characters. They can scan at a rate of 20 pages per second and recover, with 99.9% accuracy, 20 to 30 percent of missing characters.
Barnell was reluctant to make an apples to apples comparison to general purpose supercomputers. He was able to estimate that the Condor Cluster would operate at about 20% of the peak performance of the largest U.S. government supercomputer, with a cost comparison of $2 million versus nearly $100 million. If asked to build a second such computer, he estimated it would be an eight month project.
In 2008, two University of Massachusetts professors published an article on how to build a supercomputer from PS3’s. That paper grew into a website called the PS3 Cluster Guide. The Center for High-End Computing Systems at Virginia Tech built a supercomputer using 324 Mac Pros. Students from the University of Illinois’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications won an environmental award for their home built energy conserving supercomputer in 2010.
Mark Barnell will not be building another Condor Cluster. He described the hardware environment as changing every six months. Any new build would make use of newer, more powerful and more efficient hardware.