Distribution Design Allows Computers to Work in Parallel

green and white leafed plantsDistribution Design Allows Computers to Work in Parallel

Iker Castaños (Zalla, 1980), a student of Technical Engineering in Computerised Management at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), has designed the very first distribution which, initiated either from a DVD or by installation, communicates computers so that they can work in parallel.

A cluster is a group of computers that work in parallel to solve very complex problems of calculations. Mr Castaños gives an example of what parallelisation means: “Imagine that we have to add X squared and Y cubed. If just one processor is involved, it does it sequentially”. On the other hand, if a cluster carries out the operation, it is quite different: “One node (computer) will calculate X squared and, simultaneously, another Y cubed. When we have all the results, which are being carried out in parallel, we sum them. This means reducing the time necessary to calculate this final result”.

It was a nuclear fusion project to create cleaner energy that took Mr Castaños into the world of clusters. Ms Izaskun Garrido and Mr Aitor Josu Garrido, PhDs at the Advanced Control Group of the Department of Systems Engineering and Automation, approached students looking for a volunteer to configure a cluster for this project, as they were using a code called ASTRA which simulated a nuclear fusion reactor and another called MATLAB, which is a mathematics application (work is currently being carried out on the parallelisation of both). Mr Castaños volunteered for the project.

Live and installable distribution

In principle, he only had to configure a cluster (and in which he began work at the end of 2007), but it went well beyond that: “First I did the cluster. I installed a Linux distribution in a machine and modified and configured it manually in an ongoing manner. What happened was that, when I had finished, I realised that there were many Linux distributions on the market; specialized for ultra-lightweight computers, for editing videos… for everything. And I said to myself: ‘There are programmers and researchers who do not have the knowledge required to build a cluster and thus undertake their research work. Why not link up the distribution being built, and save time in having to configure?’.”

This is how the first version of ABC GNU/Linux arose, which was in trial phase by April 2009. It involved a free software based distribution (Ubuntu), live as well as installable, capable of automatically configuring a cluster of up to 254 computers.

Mr Castaños gives an example as to how it works: “100 PCs are purchased and my DVD is inserted into one of these and booted, either from the DVD or installed in the hard disc itself. This computer and the rest of the machines are connected together by a switch (a device that acts like a router). When the rest of the machines are booted and, using a BIOS (basic in/out system), as when specifying which device is to be booted, they are told what to do by means of the network card. All are booted from the DVD itself -or the hard disc if installed -, registered, and connections are created between them”. Any user who knows how to programme can do this; it is not necessary to know how to administer systems.

Encouraged by Ms Garrido and Mr Garrido, Mr Castaños submitted an article on his work to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the largest professional association at world level which works in favour of technological advances. They invited him as a speaker to the ICCAT (International Conference on Computer and Automation Technology). The congress was held in Sarajevo from the 29 to the 31 of October last year, organised by the IEEE itself and the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), the two most important bodies in engineering and information technology.

The work was also published in the IEEE’s digital library. There had existed other, similar distributions previously, like Pelican HPC (a continuation of ParallelKnoppix) or Rocks, but none with the properties of that designed by Mr Castaños, amongst other things, because none were both live and installable at the same time.

For example, Pelican HPC is only live and Rocks is only installable.

In his web page, Mr Michael Creel himself, author of Pelican HPC, has recommended ABC GNU/Linux. Also, students both in Sarajevo and from the Sapienza University in Rome have expressed interest in building a cluster based on this distribution. Moreover there have been more than a thousand downloads of Softpedia: “It is not a programme for massive use, and so a thousand is quite a number”.

The distribution is also available on the web page of the Advanced Control Group of the UPV/EHU: www.ehu.es/AC/ABC.

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