SOCORRO, N.M., May 21, 2002 -- Hundreds of outdated -- yet, still useful -- government office computers that may have been destined for the landfill have instead found new life as important research tools at New Mexico Tech.
When the New Mexico State Highway Department decided last year to buy new computers for all its office employees, the surplus machines were sent to New Mexico Tech through a cooperative "recycling" agreement and the efforts of Professor David Westpfahl of the Tech physics department, resulting in a veritable mountain of more than 300 desktop and laptop computers being amassed in a section of the university's largest warehouse.
Several of these computers went straight into research work at New Mexico Tech with little modification, while others were destined to undergo varied upgrades.
Three New Mexico Tech seniors constructed a high-powered, parallel-processing system, known as a "Beowulf cluster," by utilizing the combined computing power of eight Pentium-chip- powered computers running at the same time under the control and task-assignment capabilities of a single Pentium II processor.
This project was sponsored by Professor Scott Teare of the New Mexico Tech electrical engineering department through his year-long senior design course.
"The task in front of the students was to develop a scalable computer system to support my research in directed energy and
optics in a means compatible with ongoing efforts at the Maui High-Performance Computing Center in Hawai'i," Teare said.
New Mexico Tech is a partner in the operation and management of the Air Force Research Laboratory's Maui Supercomputing Center along with the University of Hawai'i, Boeing Rocketdyne Technical Services, Science Applications International Corporation, Textron, and the Ohio Supercomputing Center.
By combining the number-crunching capacities of those re- allocated highway department computers with less than $200 worth of additional peripherals and software, the electrical engineering students developed and built what is essentially a low-cost, no-frills "supercomputer."
"By splitting out a problem through our parallel processing arrangement, which is based on a Red Hat Linux operating system, each individual machine is assigned a portion of the problem to work on, and, as a result, we can get an answer to a problem a whole lot faster than if we were using just one machine," explained Michael Berg, a recent graduate of New Mexico Tech and a member of the Tech Beowulf cluster design team.
"This particular Beowulf cluster we developed is putting out so much computing power that only a few high-end computers available in today's market can match or beat it," Berg asserted.
Fellow team member Anthony Montoya, Jr., who also recently graduated from New Mexico Tech, pointed out that developing the Tech Beowulf cluster was only Phase I of a longer-term parallel processing project that will eventually involve high school teachers who take summer classes in scientific computing through New Mexico Tech's Master of Science Teaching degree program.
"We're hoping that this proof-of-concept parallel processing set-up, which we've thoroughly documented, will serve as a model for teachers to extend their own similar computing projects into the curricula of the state's high schools," Montoya said.
"Eventually, even high school students will be able to develop and build their own Beowulf clusters."
All Beowulf clusters, regardless of where they are developed or used, typically trace their roots back to the Beowulf Project, which was originated by NASA researchers in 1994.
By using parallel programming languages, readily available personal computers, and freely available Linux operating systems, computer scientists and systems designers have since continued to further develop Beowulf-class cluster computers, providing high- end performance for science and engineering computations at low- end prices.
"By linking the New Mexico Tech Beowulf cluster's central processor through our campus network, anyone at Tech can now sit in their office, solve problems using our Beowulf cluster, and then display solutions and graphics on their own desktop back in their own office," said Kevin Fisher, the third of the trio of recent Tech graduates who comprised the university's Beowulf cluster design team.
Denis Oesch, a New Mexico Tech doctoral candidate in physics who works with Teare and Westpfahl, for instance, has already been actively harnessing the computing power of the campus Beowulf cluster -- sorting through massive amounts of data generated by his research on optical coatings of mirrors used in the 100-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory.
And the practical experience the New Mexico Tech seniors compiled in constructing a Beowulf cluster, as well as in using the ZPL programming language that runs it, will certainly stand to advance the career opportunities of the Beowulf cluster team members as they prepare to leave Tech.
"In our work with the Beowulf cluster, we used some of the same code that gets used on supercomputers throughout the world, such as those at Los Alamos National Laboratory, or the Maui High-Performance Computing Center, which New Mexico Tech manages as part of an educational and research consortium," Berg said.
In another related "re-use" project, many of the computers from the New Mexico State Highway Department were made available to be refurbished and upgraded by computer-savvy members of the New Mexico Tech Graduate Student Association (GSA), and eventually found new homes -- and new use -- in various research laboratories at the school and in the offices of several master's and doctoral degree candidates at Tech.
"Upgrades for most of these computers averaged about $300," said Tim Canty, former president of the Tech GSA, "so for a $300 investment, students took some of these older computers back to their departments and still derived a tremendous amount of benefit from them."
For most research applications, 200 megahertz is plenty of power to do the job, Canty added.
"You might not be able to solve your problem in a second, but 10 seconds really isn't that long to wait for an answer," he
said. "I mean, why buy a Ferrari when a Ford -- a used Ford at that -- will do the job?"
Beowulf -- because even New Mexico Tech students should know something about epic poetry!