Supercomputing on the cheap

A four-man team has harnessed a university’s bank of computers to create a supercomputer – at a fraction of the cost being spent elsewhere. A team at De Montfort University (DMU) in Leicester, UK, has developed a way of linking its high-spec computers to utilise their unused resources, especially at weekends and night-times.

Since Spring 2012, a string of machines with more than 500 computational cores between them in DMU’s creative technology studios have been linked into a cluster, labelled the Memenet. Controlled by an external computer across the road in Gateway House in the university’s centre for computational intelligence (CCI), the cluster has been working in the background, creating algorithms without affecting work being done by students.

'All the problems of the world are optimisation problems,' explained Professor Ferrante Neri from the CCI. 'To optimise means to make a clever choice. Our role is to build up the intelligence of the machine so that the computer has to autonomously make choices – so it can behave in an intelligent way. It has to solve some optimisation problems.

'Part of our project consists of letting the machine design the algorithms itself. The machine analyses the problem and makes the decision. In order to do this we need to run very extensive computational experiments – many algorithms, many times, on many problems.'

The idea germinated from chats between Professor Neri, who arrived at DMU in spring 2012 from a university in Finland, and Dr Lorenzo Picinali, a senior lecturer in music technology who runs DMU’s Fused Media Lab, whose shared Italian origins had brought them together.

Because the audio, video and multimedia tasks done by Dr Picinali’s students sometimes need heavy and extensive processing, the computers in the creative technology studios are much more than standard desktop machines. They typically cost about £2,500, have eight to 16 core processors, high-bandwidth RAM and multiple hard-drives. However, they are only really used during weekday working hours, and only during term-times.

The beauty of the Memenet project, which runs on Kimeme, a software package developed by Professor Neri’s former PhD students in Finland, is that it costs little more than the extra electricity used. The developers say that a computational cluster built up in this way can potentially be expanded indefinitely, reaching thousands of cores, if needed, with no extra cost.

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