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Cornell Theory Center:
Windows-based cluster computing on Dell hardware
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"(Our) People can begin developing applications for the cluster now. They want the Dell workstations because of their performance and reliability."
David Lifka, Chief Technical Officer, Cornell Theory Center

The Cornell Theory Center (CTC) is a high-performance computing and interdisciplinary research center located on the Ithaca campus of Cornell University. Scientific and engineering research projects supported by CTC represent a variety of disciplines, including biology, behavioral and social sciences, computer science, engineering, geosciences, mathematics, materials and physical sciences, and business.

Part of CTC's mission is to create and support cross-university research alliances that rely on high-performance computing to achieve major advances. Examples of these are the Computational Materials Institute and a new initiative in computational finance. CTC receives funding from Cornell University, New York State, a number of federal agencies, and Corporate Program members. In 1999, CTC moved completely to Windows*-based cluster computing on Dell* hardware. CTC's premiere Dell system, Velocity, is a cluster of 64 Dell PowerEdge* 6250 servers with quad Pentium® III Xeon" 500Mhz processors. Velocity provides the power of 256 processors to the parallel user.

Shortly after installation, CTC's initial Velocity system was saturated with users. In addition, CTC identified a class of users with complex computational challenges with strategic applications that demand access to the entire system. For example, researchers from the Computational Materials Institute are examining the way the metal skin on an aging airplane tears away as it fails. This kind of simulation code is large scale, highly complex, and constantly growing in size and complexity. The 32-bit Velocity cluster was already running 24 x 7 to meet the user demand and the strategic applications were running up against bottlenecks that slowed their progress.

"Our strategic users needed memory and greater memory bandwidth," says David Lifka, chief technical officer at CTC. "Although they were receiving incremental gains in parallel computing on the existing system, they were looking for leaps."

"We first heard of the Intel® Itanium® processor at the Intel Developer Forum several years ago," says Lifka. "We realized the 64-bit architecture would give us the scalability and performance we needed." CTC was convinced it was the answer to its challenges.

Cornell approached Dell for an evaluation system in Spring 2001 to validate that Itanium-based systems would meet their needs. Dell provided the Center with a 4-way PowerEdge 7150 Server and two Precision 730 Workstations for evaluation and eventually porting.

CTC made the decision to port to the new platform. This decision was based on many important factors, one of which is that Microsoft® Windows® XP is included among the wide choice of operating systems available for the Itanium architecture. "Our staff and faculty are already familiar with Windows, so additional training costs and time were minimal."

Lifka was immediately impressed with the power of the Itanium processor running on the Dell Precision 730 workstations. "With the Intel Itanium processor, some of our most demanding code gets three and a half times better performance than with the 32-bit processor. We didn't expect that level of improvement."

CTC has been using the Dell Precision 730 workstations for several months now and plans to deploy more throughout the organization in preparation for a large-scale Dell cluster with 32 quad Itanium processor nodes, which it will acquire later this year. "People can begin developing applications for the cluster now," says Lifka. "They want the Dell workstations because of their performance and reliability."

"Dell is very strong in cost/performance metrics as well as maintenance and support," says Lifka. "Dell systems, along with the Windows XP operating system and the Intel Itanium processor, have broken down the technical barrier to high-end computing."

According to Lifka, the porting process is not difficult and he believes many organizations can benefit from the new capabilities of the Itanium processor. "With minimal work, we have seen a significant performance improvement. There are some things you have to do to get your codes optimized, but Cornell worked with Intel consultants to get it done," says Lifka. "The Itanium processor provides us with a big gain in performance for our strategic applications and we're convinced the Intel® Architecture will become the industry standard."

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