At the beginning of the 20th century, American college football players frequently employed a technique called the flying wedge. The ball carrier’s teammates would surround him, arms linked, and the entire team would rush downfield en masse, running roughshod over individual opponents who dared try to stop them.
The flying wedge has since gone the way of the slide rule. The idea of “strength in numbers,” however, is finding new currency within cash-conscious companies whose computing needs continue to grow. Their latest resource: hundreds if not thousands of desktop computers that sit idle all night (and, often, much of the day). Their goal: Link the computer processors to create a “cluster” that can work as one — in effect, a supercomputer.
Since 1996 aircraft engine builder Pratt & Whitney, a division of United Technologies based in East Hartford, Connecticut, has been using a network of more than 5,000 Sun Unix workstations to accelerate the process of designing aircraft engines. According to director of information technology Nancy Davis, the cluster approach has worked so well that Pratt & Whitney will extend it to 20,000 desktop PCs.
Either software or a dedicated central computer must coordinate the workloads of the computers in such a network, and ideally those computers will be configured identically. But many companies don’t have the IT muscle of a Pratt & Whitney to design and support such a system.
They might look for a helping hand from IBM, which was awarded a patent last year for a “task distribution processing system and the method for subscribing computing tasks during idle time.” Oracle has also joined in the game; the latest version of its 9i database application, released earlier this year, allows computers to be added to a cluster incrementally when computing needs increase.
“Clusters have been on a slow growth path over the last five years,” says George Demarest, Oracle’s director of database marketing, because “dealing with clusters is a pain in the neck.” Adds Demarest, “We’re at the point now, though, where you can just add computing capacity and not worry about extra work to do.”