SCL Cluster Cookbook
Interconnect Performance

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Technology Comparison

Throughput over a range of message sizes is an important issue in interconnection technologies. The graph below compares technologies using the Scalable Computing Lab's NetPIPE analysis tool which tests the performance of point-to-point communication. Performance on this graph is shown as throughput where the block size is increased exponentially starting with one byte.

Figure 1. Comparison of Ethernet, FDDI, ATM, Fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet, and Myrinet

Information about the tested interconnect technologies can be found in the Interconnect page. Tests done on PC's were performed with Pentium Pro 200 CPUs, SMC EtherPower Fast Ethernet with Bay 350T & Cabletron 6600 Fast Ethernet switches and Packet Engines Gigabit Ethernet with Packet Engines' Gigabit Full-Duplex Repeater.

Another important issue in cluster communication is latency. High throughput tends not to be useful for parallel computing if it is not accompanied by low latency (i.e., small messages must be transferred quickly). Graphing the data obtained from NetPIPE shows the latency clearly.

Figure 2. Latency of Ethernet, FDDI, ATM, Fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet, and Myrinet

As with the graph of Figure 1, the transferred block size is increased exponentially while the transmission time for each block is measured. The transmission time for each block as plotted against the bandwidth. Note that there are places in the graph where the transmission time actually decreases as the block size grows. This relates to the severe drops and rebounds in the graph of Figure 1, because a block where throughput is suddenly poor will take longer to transmit than a following larger block where throughput rebounds. NetPIPE clearly finds these problem points.

For the clusters built at Ames Lab, we have used SMC EtherPower Fast Ethernet cards and a variety of Fast Ethernet hubs and switches from vendors including Bay and Cabletron. It seems to be important to test a switch with the desired NICs before purchase, as we have discovered that one particular switch did not perform well in our Linux clusters. The switch in question did not autosense full-duplex link operation and we were not able to force the NICs into full-duplex mode using the Linux driver for the Fast Ethernet cards. The switch vendor was less than helpful and just said "force your cards into full-duplex mode". The impact of this problem was extraordinary and thanks to NetPIPE's analysis, we will not use the problem switch in any clusters.

See the Running NetPIPE page for information on using the NetPIPE analysis tool to do your own analysis.

Operating System Effect on Interconnect Performance

An interesting result of Ames Lab's NetPIPE tests on networks shows the impact of an operating system's network protocol stack on high-performance interconnects. For example, the following graph shows the performance of Packet Engines Gigabit Ethernet hardware on two Pentium Pro 200MHz PC's connected back-to-back running Linux, FreeBSD, and NT.

Figure 3. Performance of Gigabit Ethernet on Linux, FreeBSD, and NT

FreeBSD 2.2.2 was tweaked in this case with an extraordinarily simple change to the kernel to eliminate delayed acknowledgments in TCP, which results in the curve which is free from jagged dropouts (a similar fix is reported to have been performed on the world's busiest FTP site,, which also runs FreeBSD). In FreeBSD 3.0, to be released in October 1998, the sysctl variable net.inet.tcp.delack_enabled can be set to 0 for an equivalent effect (see the sysctl(8) man page for details).

A TCP delayed ack fix for Linux 2.0.x kernels has been developed by Wayne Salamon. We are looking at the fix and will incorporate the results of the tests in this page if it improves TCP performance.

The NT line in the graph above reflects Packet Engines Gigabit Ethernet G-NIC hardware (manufactured 9/97), G-NIC Windows Drivers version, and this NT registry tweak:


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Maintained by ghelmer / Last updated on 08/27/98