RealTime IT News

Grid Software, Now With The Mac Touch

SAN FRANCISCO -- Apple Computer Tuesday stepped outside its usual consumer persona and debuted Xgrid, the company's first officially branded software designed for grid computing .

Developed by the Cupertino, Calif.-based company's Advanced Computation Group (ACG), the clustering software is intended primarily for scientific research. A beta version is now available as a free download on the Apple Web site. Once installed, the software creates a "virtual" IT environment that takes advantage of unused computing capacity on all networked resources (desktops and servers) to run batch and workload processing.

Previously, Apple either used management software in its operating systems or relied on third-party developers such as Platform Computing's Platform LSF software or open source cluster management software such as Open PPS to get customers interested in using its computers for distributed computing.

What Apple has done is adapt its user-friendly interface to allow scientific types to run compute-intensive applications, such as the popular gene-sequencing application BLAST, on multiple Macs. Xgrid also taps into Apple's Rendezvous networking technology as a core part of the software to help recognize and manage multiple nodes on the network.

More importantly, Xgrid lets Apple tap into the lucrative high performance computing (HPC) clustering marketplace currently populated by software running on servers made by IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems.

"The bright spot in the server market is the HPC Linux server area and what it seems like Apple is saying that is has UNIX RISC server that can operate as a Linux cluster with a minimum amount of change," said IDC Research Vice President Jean Bozman. "Some people in their install base are already doing this."

Apple is being very candid about Xgrid's current capabilities. The company said the "software does not solve all clustering problems." It does not, for example, replace clustering software such as MPI or clustering hardware such as InfiniBand. The company said Xgrid does not accelerate or "grid-enable" existing applications on a computer.

"For an application to take advantage of the Xgrid technology, you must update it to use the Xgrid APIs," a posting on the company's Web site said. "However, if you currently run long computations in your Terminal windows using, say, an already-compiled executable, you should be able to use Xgrid out of the box to run batch jobs for this executable on your clusters."

What Xgrid does do is provide a remote execution environment and file staging abilities that coordinate the running of tasks on distributed computing resources. In that way, each computer has access to all of the files necessary to execute the tasks.

Xgrid was first tested at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The FORTRAN-based jet noise prediction code "Jet3D" was run across a distributed cluster of Power Mac G5, Power Mac G4 and Xserve G4 systems. A total of eight G4 and two G5 processors were run and reached the performance of approximately 32 gigaflops. Customers from NASA, Genentech, Simon Fraser University, Reed College and Virginia Tech have been testing the new technology on clusters of Mac desktops, portables and servers.

Virginia Tech in particular has been successful in making the Macintosh part of the HPC folklore. Scientists at the university used 1,100 dual processor PowerMac G5s (2,200 processors) configured in a cluster and managed to secure the No. 3 spot on the Top 500 list of supercomputers. Dubbed "System X" the $5.2 million system sits just behind NEC's $300 million Earth Simulator in Japan and the $215 million ASCI Q, an HP-based machine housed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

"They looked at everything -- Intel, AMD, SPARC -- and they went with G5s," CEO Steve Jobs said during his keynote at the annual Macworld Conference and Expo here. "People are making pilgrimages to Blacksburg just to see this thing."

Apple's ACG said it is now "keenly" interested in Xgrid public beta feedback. The group would like to know, for example, how far the Xgrid tachometer could be pushed in an actual, clustered computation.