Supercomputing Power to the People

On Saturday, some 1,400 volunteers will converge in a college gymnasium, laptops and even desktop CPUs in tow. They’ll plug into a high-speed LAN and boot up from a CD containing open source software in an attempt to create a supercomputer that breaks into the world’s top 500 fastest.

The project, known as FlashMob I, is the brainchild of John Witchel, a University of San Francisco graduate student, and his professor, Greg Benson. They want to give ordinary citizens the power to explore and address problems that are most important to them, whether that’s a high-school science project or research into breast cancer.

The project is just eight weeks in the making, according to Witchel. “We originally set out to build a small cluster, but it turned out we would be about 200 nodes short if we used all the equipment in the building. So I raised my hand in class and said, ‘Why don’t we just put up a note on

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Most supercomputers are made up of identical nodes that may take weeks to be tuned for maximum performance. The FlashMob Supercomputer software is designed to quickly connect a virtually infinite number of heterogeneous machines, enabling them to work together as a single supercomputer. A FlashMob computer, unlike an ordinary cluster, is temporary and organized ad hoc for the purpose of working on a single problem.

Futurist Howard Rheingold, author of the book Smart Mobs, told that the supercomputer project is the next evolutionary step that builds on three previous social and computing phenomena: The Web, which was built by millions of people who put up individual pages and linked them together; [email protected], the project that harnessed individual computers over the Internet; and flashmobs, in which individuals converge at a specific place and time with the aim of creating a surreal version of street entertainment.

“People have really powerful tools at home
now,” Rheingold said, “and these tools can enable people to do what
scientists have been unable to do so far.”

Witchel and Benson modified an existing Linux kernel plus a number of libraries to develop their networking application, tuning the code to work in a heterogeneous environment and also to boot up and come online as a single supercomputer very quickly. Their FlashMob I software facilitates bootstrapping PCs, real-time reporting, on the fly network and node diagnostics, and ad-hoc performance optimization.

Volunteers will be given labels for their computers and matching receipt tags to make sure they get them back after the project. After setting them up, they’ll be required to clear the building so
that benchmarking can start. There will be several benchmark events
throughout the day. The best benchmark will be submitted for inclusion in the Top 500 Supercomputer list.

“The sole purpose of the event is to prove that this kind of ad hoc supercomputing is for real,” Witchel said. But the goal of the work is also much broader. The group hopes that researchers and activists will build on the code, “and put it to use in ways we can’t imagine.”

For example, during Earth Day, a group could run a three-day simulation of what would happen if there were a forest fire in the Amazon. Or, volunteers could drop off their laptops while they participate in an AIDS walk, and, while they walk, the FlashMob supercomputer could be hard at work on an AIDS drug simulation problem for researchers.

Renting time on supercomputers is so expensive and the demand so
constrained that even well-funded research scientists don’t have as much access as they’d like. “Because FlashMobs can be assembled in a matter of hours with no capital cost, that [could] start a virtuous cycle of writing better supercomputing software, which then initiates more compelling reasons to have larger supercomputers,” Witchel said.

The Flashmob I project points to a new era in collective action, Rheingold said. “[The event] is an early indicator of technologically
enabled collective action that’s self-organized by people.”

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