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USF Computer Science


Press

New York Times [Front page]: Hey, Gang, Let's Make Our Own Supercomputer

C|Net: Reprint of nytimes.com article

San Jose Business Journal: Supercomputer flashmob planned for SF

Slashdot: Discussion

NPR: Radio Interview Archive

UK PC Pro: Flash mob to create super computer

USF News: Supercomputing in a Flash

Press release

To set up a briefing or to obtain media credential for the FlashMob I event, contact Gary McDonald at 415-422-2699.


FlashMob FAQ

What is a flashmob computer?

A flashmob computer is an ad-hoc temporary assembly of ordinary PC's running special software to coordinate the PC's into one single supercomputer. Technically speaking, a flashmob computer is a distributed memory machine. FlashMob computers are set up and broken down on the same day or over a weekend, and are created to work on a specific problem.

What can I do with flashmob computing?

In today's world of big iron supercomputing most of us have no say in what supercomputers do. Mostly supercomputers are used for studying nuclear weapons. And if you don't like that, too bad. You have no say. You can now decide what to use a supercomputer for. So if you want to study global warming or the hole in the ozone layer you can do that with a flashmob computer. If you want to study breast cancer or AIDS, you can do that. If you want to see the effects of pollution on an animal species, you can do that. If you want to draw an insanely detailed mural of a beautiful woman with every hair on her head modeled and every ridge on her fingernails perfectly rendered using a ray-tracing program, you can do that too! But most importantly, with flashmob computing you now have a say in how supercomputers are used.

How is a flashmob supercomputer different from an ordinary supercomputer?

A traditional supercomputer is a computer with tightly connected processors, memory, and disks. They're built in buildings specifically constructed to house supercomputers. They have large complex cooling systems. And, most important, they are very expensive. Technically speaking, a flashmob computer is a distributed memory machine. It's set up in a gym or warehouse, and it is temporary. It has no permanent infrastructure and mostly costs the time and energy of the participants.

How is FlashMob Computing different from the Apple-Virginia Tech Supercomputer?

The Apple Supercomputer at Virginia Tech used 1,100 Dual 2.0 GHZ Apple G5's. It is a permanent installation created in a building dedicated to housing the supercomputer in a climate controlled environment. It cost $5.2 Million Dollars to build. Like all big iron computers, it's tightly controlled, centrally managed and out of the reach of ordinary folks. FlashMob is temporary, installed in a gyms and the costs are mostly the time and energy of the participants.

How is FlashMob computing different from SETI@Home for example?

The wide-scaled distributed stuff like SETI solves problems like ants needing to move a mountain of dirt: Each SETI computer (ant) is given a simple task: work on this frequency domain (move one grain of sand from hither to yon). This task takes a non-trivial amount of time. When it's are done, the computer drops off its info (grain of sand), and grabs another one. The ants never talk to each other, and if one ant drops his grain of sand, another ant can pick up where the other left off without interrupting the other ants.

The computers do not have to talk to each other to complete their work. And they only have to talk to the main computer to pickup and drop off work. This limits the kinds of problems wide-scaled distributed computing can solve. FlashMob computing is on a LAN, so the nodes can talk all the time. This enables FlashMob computing to solve a wider range of problems.

I've heard of Grid Computing. How is that different from FlashMob Computing?

Grid computing generally refers to the business of "sharing computer centers". These centers are generally permanent and serve a commercial purpose. FlashMob computing works with ordinary desktop computers and a LAN that can be built with parts from any computer store. FlashMob computing is not permanent. Grid computing can be thought of as factories working together on an end product. Each factory does its part, and the plant superintendents call each other on the telephone to keep everything going smoothly. The output of one factory is loaded on to a stream of trucks that carry partially finished goods from one factory to another.

What is the future of flashmob computing?

The future of flashmob computing is anyone's guess. Our hope is that high schools, universities, churches, groups of friends, dedicated individuals, and anyone who cares will look at our FlashMob I project and say "ain't no thang, we can do that too", and start making and using supercomputers to study the world around them in whatever fashion they deem fit.

Goals of the project

  1. Our immediate goal is to prove flashmob computing can work. We've set our sights on performing as well as one of the Top 500 fastest supercomputers.
  2. Near term, we want to make this web site a place where people can share ideas, tune software, and improve on our implementation in the tradition of Open Source.
  3. Start tracking flashmob computers with a Top 500 Flashes list -- separate from the top500.org.
  4. Create a "solution set exchange". FlashMob I will use HighjPerformance Linpack as its benchmarking software.
  5. There are lots of problems out there waiting to be solved. We want to create an exchange were people can post their problem sets to inspire the creation of new flashmobs. (For example, a researcher might post a model to better understand the causes of leukemia. This research on the Wolburn toxic waste site took seven years to complete. Perhaps a flashmob might have helped. A group of friends who care about leukemia working together could have run models and helped this important study.
  6. Have fun!

How do I setup my own flashmob supercomputer?

First and foremost, if you can come to FlashMob I -- there's no substitute for first hand experience. Otherwise, start here and get some experience running a one node flashmob. Then run two. Then run ten. Then take over the world.

What about viruses?

Flash Mob I will boot and run entirely from a linux-based CD-ROM that we provide you. Even if someone had a really nasty virus or worm actively and aggressively at work on their hard drive, because we never touch your hard drive, the virus would never load. If someone were to boot their native OS with a running virus and plug in, the virus would have no place to go because all the other computers are running from a linux-based CD-ROM.

What is the Linpack Benchmark?

As quoted from Netlib.org: "The Linpack Benchmark is a measure of a computer's floating-point rate of execution. It is determined by running a computer program that solves a dense system of linear equations. Over the years the characteristics of the benchmark has changed a bit. In fact, there are three benchmarks included in the Linpack Benchmark report. The Linpack Benchmark is something that grew out of the Linpack software project. It was originally intended to give users of the package a feeling for how long it would take to solve certain matrix problems. The benchmark started as an appendix to the Linpack Users' Guide and has grown since the Linpack User's Guide was published in 1979." Here is the Linpack software.

What is Knoppix?

As quoted from www.knoppix.org. KNOPPIX is a bootable CD with a collection of GNU/Linux software, automatic hardware detection, and support for many graphics cards, sound cards, SCSI and USB devices and other peripherals. It is not necessary to install anything on a hard disk. Due to on-the-fly decompression, the CD can have up to 2 GB of executable software installed on it. Knoppix is GNU GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE.

Has this been done before?

We stand on the shoulders of giants in all that we do. This is equally so in the case of FlashMob I. Certainly people have built supercomputers before. Look at the Top 500! People have built computers from commodity components before too. Examples date back to the 80's with Cal Tech's hypercube (Seitz & Fox) in which off the shelf PC's were wired together to build a supercomputer.

Virginia Tech built an innovative permanent supercomputer wiring together 1100 Apple dual G5's. They used commodity computers, high speed switching, and student labor to keep the cost to a mere $5.2M.

In 1998, Paderborn University in Germany held "ComputerNacht" a televised event in which 512 computers were wired together to form a temporary supercomputer much like FlashMob. The computer was cooled by the local fire department blowing the snowy cold air into the computer room! Computers of all sorts (individual boxes, servers boxes, small clusters) were donated to the cause by local high tech companies and individuals. This was a one-time effort.

Unlike the VTU effort which required millions of dollars of infrastructure to support a permanent installation, FlashMob is going to be built in the gym. Unlike the Paderborn computer, which only ran the LINPACK benchmark on a reconfigured subset of 48 DEC Alphas -- FlashMob will run LINPACK on the whole cluster. Additionally, the ComputerNacht required installing software and reconfiguring the donated systems. In FlashMob, once the boot CD is popped out, the donated computer is instantly restored to its prior state since no persistent software is applied to the disk.

The FlashMob revolution allows anybody to take a set of network connected computers and to create an instant supercomputer without needing to be an advanced system administrator. If you have 3 or 4 computers at home, you can "Flash" them. If your local elementary school has 100 computers -- "Flash" them too. Unlike other prior art, the FlashMob is re-creatable by anybody.

Can I participate remotely?

No. While a flashmob computer across a high-speed WAN is certainly possible, FlashMob I will not have an internet connection.

What is a Hub Captain and how do I become one?

A Hub Captain is the person responsible for the hub your computer is connected to during FlashMob I. That person's duties include helping everyone on his/her hub to get up and stay up. Hub captains will receive additional training on flashmob computing and FlashMob I. In addition, Hub Captains will receive special recognition for their efforts. If you're interested in being a hub-captain send us email at info@flashmobcomputing.com. Check out the hub captain instructions

How do I prepare my laptop?

First, make sure it's fully-charged. Then, check your BIOS.

  • Bootable from CD-ROM
  • Disable all power management when on AC power
    Examples: disable auto shut down, standby, hibernate, monitor sleep, and CPU speed regulation. Exception: for Dell laptops, enable speed step if option is available.
  • If computer is a "headless" desktop and has no keyboard or monitor, then set option to allow booting if keyboard and monitor are not present.

What about security?

We have made every effort to ensure a safe and secure event. There will be no less than five police officers in the gym overseeing the event. We have a credentialing system that will ensure that no one can steal your computer.

When you first arrive you will receive two things:

  • A Photo ID Badge with your name and a unique serial number
  • A sticker for each of your computers with your name and matching serial numbers

Before you enter the gym, you must put the stickers on all equipment. We will compare your photo ID badge number with the sticker numbers to ensure a match. When you leave at the end of the day if the serial numbers don't match you will not be allowed to leave the gym with the computer. If you lose your photo ID, you will have to enter the same password you used when you registered. If the serial number associated with the password matches you can leave. If you lost your badge and you can't remember your password, or your sticker fell off your computer, university police will hold your equipment until we can verify it's yours.

Has any music been sung about FlashMob I?

Of course! Professor Pete Wells entertained us with the following lyrics:

MONSTER FLASH
I was working in the gym late last night 
When my eyes beheld an eerie sight 
For the monsters from their slabs began to rise 
And suddenly to my surprise 
	They did the flash 
	They did the Linpack dash 
	The FlashMob flash 
	It was a Foundry smash 
	They did the flash 
	It caught on even in Nash 
	They spent the cash 
	They scratched the FlashMob rash
From my laboratory on the Harney five 
To the master boxroom where the hubcaps thrive 
The nerds all came from their humble abodes 
To get a jolt for their electrodes 
	They did the flash 
	They dumped the Gflop stash
	They'd turn to ash
	Or feel the Cody's lash
The zombies were having fun 
The cable had just been run 
The guests included Amdahl, 
Bell and Markoff --John 
The cluster was rockin', Alex was digging the bounds 
Igor at gates, backed by a hundred E-Loans 
The gamin'-LANners were about to dig in 
With their network group, "The Gigabit Ten" 
	They played the fash 
	They played the gamesters' pash 
	The FlashMob bash 
	They played the L4 cache
Off from his platform, Pat's voice did ring 
Seems he was troubled by just one thing 
He opened the lid and shook his head 
And said, "Whatever--my laptop CPU's dead!"
	It's now the crash 
	It's now the FlashMob crash 
Now everything's cool, Greg's a part of the band
And John's fabled Flash is the hit of the land 
For you, the living, this mob was meant too 
When you get to the pearly door, tell them Peter sent you 
	Then you can rap 
	You can get the FlashMob rap 
	It was a rap    [and no enchilada!]
	And that's no crap
	It was a wrap
	It was the FlashMob wrap
Thanks to
Monster Mash by Bobby Pickett and Lenny Capizzi.

Last modified Wednesday September 29, 2004
Department of Computer Science, University of San Francisco
Please e-mail webmaster at cs dot usfca dot edu with comments or problems