SCL Cluster Cookbook
Operating Systems

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Inexpensive versions of UNIX are the operating system of choice for clusters of PCs and workstations. Windows NT, while perhaps being an easier operating system to administrate, tends to not perform as well as Linux, FreeBSD, or NetBSD. Most of the software for use on clusters (such as MPICH and PVM) run best on UNIX. Finally, the price of the free UNIX operating systems is unbeatable.

Logo] Linux is far and away the most popular UNIX operating system for PCs. A large hacker following tends to create drivers for new hardware as soon as it is available, and numerous distributions of the Linux kernel with UNIX utilities are available. Linux TCP/IP performance has been an issue for Ames Laboratory's clusters, with undesired performance dropouts at moderately-sized message sizes in the 2.0.x kernels. A re-write of the TCP stack that corrects the dropouts is in the 2.1.x development kernels, but our laboratory is concerned about the lower overall performance with the 2.1.90 kernel.

Most Linux distributions include pre-compiled add-on packages that are easily installed. Many vendors support Linux, including the Portland Group which offers FORTRAN compilers for Linux that understand HPF dialects of Fortran.

Extreme Linux has now been packaged by Red Hat Software just for parallel processing clusters. The Beowulf Project has a number of add-ons for Linux that support clusters. See their Beowulf Software page for details.

Logo] FreeBSD is a UNIX operating system for Intel (and soon, Alpha) PCs based on the Berkeley Standard Distribution. FreeBSD has a large following of system administrators and networking professionals, and the development team tends to stress stability and reliability over "gee-whiz" features. A centralized development organization provides email support and regular production releases. Prereleases of version 3.0 include symmetric multiprocessor support for making use of multiple CPUs in one system. FreeBSD provides a vast number of pre-compiled packages that can be easily installed with the menu-based installer. FreeBSD also includes support for running most Linux software to take advantage of many of the commercial products available for Linux.

The Metacomputing Research project at the David Sarnoff Research Center is one of the known clustering projects to make use of FreeBSD, as well as Linux.

[NetBSD Banner] NetBSD is similar to FreeBSD in that is is also based on the Berkeley Standard Distribution. However, NetBSD is available for several architectures, including Intel-based PC's, Alphas, Sun systems, and many others.

While the trend for clustering for parallel processing seems to be focused on UNIX solutions, Windows NT can be used for parallel computation clusters. The High Performance Virtual Machines Project run by the Concurrent Systems Architecture Group at the University of Illinois maintains the Resources for High Performance Computing on Windows NT web page for those interested in Windows NT parallel computing clusters, and they have built at least one cluster using Windows NT, HPVM III.

Some see the vast amount of unused compute cycles in PC's on desktops as a potential for distributed parallel computing. Individuals such as Al Geist of the Computer Science and Mathematics Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory are interested using Windows95 systems for cluster computing, since many organizations have lots of Windows95 desktop computers with plenty of spare CPU cycles.

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