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SBCs make for cheaper access to supercomputer

Posted: 02 Jun 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:supercomputer? SBC? Raspberry Pi? Parallela? Nvidia?

Adapteva says that its 64-core version is capable of delivering 90GFLOPS of performance and is comparable to a theoretical CPU running at 45GHz or 64 cores running at 700MHz each. The board (if you can get it) uses Ubuntu for its OS and comes with a software stack that includes Epiphany development tools such as a C compiler, a multi-core debugger, and OpenCL (among a host of others) for those needing a development platform.

At $99 per board (for the base platform), the board is more on the expensive side, however it's relatively compact (about the size of a motherboard with 64 cores) and incredibly powerful. While these boards don't necessarily compare with supercomputers that cost millions of dollars, they are an incredible alternative for home users who need to compile data and don't want to sell their internal organs to get the ability. Developers, makers, and hobbyists alike are continually turning to SBCs for their projects. The trend will continue to grow, especially when they can purchase off-the-shelf hardware and turn it all into a data-crunching beast of a machine.

Pacific Design & Manufacturing's wall-mounted Renderfarm

The possibility of building a home-brewed supercomputer begs the question, What can be done with them? The answer is simple, what can't they do? We all know that their primary role is to crunch data through parallel processing. The things some users are doing with that power are unusual. Take Pacific Design & Manufacturing's wall-mounted Renderfarm, for example. It's actually a conglomerate of six PCs connected together and housed in a customised case that was designed by Fredrik Perman.

Pacific Design Renderfarm

Figure 5: Pacific Design & Manufacturing's wall-mounted Renderfarm, designed by Fredrik Perman.

While the DIY supercomputer is pleasing to the eye, its primary function is to render data for conceptual designs, or simply put, to render CGI images. Its keyboard, mouse, and LED screen allow users to pump-out renderings with ease. It also doubles as an entertainment system for those waiting in the company's lobby. Applications for DIY supercomputers are only limited by your imagination. These supercomputers can be used for astronomy exercises, such as finding new exoplanets by analysing the gravitational fluctuations of stars, or used to find black holes. They can be used for scientific research, such as testing aerodynamics without the need to build a physical model, or used to predict the patterns of earthquakes. Meteorologists can use them to analyse sensor data to predict weather patterns or use them to tackle the issue of climate-change.

With all the wanton power that these machines harness, they would be excellent at mining crypto-currencies as well. Just make sure you are doing that mining with your own hardware, or it could land you in trouble. One unlucky student from Harvard found that out hard way and was banned from using any of the Ivy League school's research facilities. The school boasts one of America's most powerful supercomputing clusters, with an incredible 4,096 Intel Xeon cores and 10TB (yes, that's 10 terabytes) of RAM.

The unnamed student was in the process of mining dogecoin and apparently didn't realise that mining the crypto-currency uses a continuous amount of processing power. That demand caught the attention of school administrators, who promptly took action. Unfortunately, CPUs are wholly inefficient at mining crypto-currencies, due to their architecture, and the mining relies more on GPU power to get the most efficiency.

In retrospect, 13 AMD 7990s have the same mining power as Harvard's cluster and cost significantly cheaper to build and use. No matter what your project or application might be, building your own supercomputer doesn't need to break the bank or send your electric bill soaring. With the availability of cheap SBCs, there's nothing you can't accomplish.

- Cabe Atwell
??EE Times

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