Tuesday, December 15, 2009

FASTRA II: the world’s most powerful desktop supercomputer

Is it possible to fit the computing power of a large supercomputer cluster in the tight space of a PC case? In our research on image reconstruction we often have to perform large-scale scientific computations, which can easily take weeks on a normal PC. Last year, the FASTRA project was launched to develop a desktop supercomputer based on gaming hardware. Although highly successful, even FASTRA cannot provide the computational power required for our latest research projects. FASTRA needs a successor, which should be much more powerful, while maintaining the favorable properties of its older brother: green, mobile and inexpensive. For just 6000 euros, you can have 12TFLOPS of computing power at your fingertips.
Part of the Vision Lab of the University of Antwerp, the research group ASTRA focuses on the development of new computational methods for tomography. Tomography is a technique used in medical scanners to create three-dimensional images of the internal organs of patients, based on a large number of X-ray photos that are acquired over a range of angles. ASTRA develops new reconstruction techniques that lead to better reconstruction quality than classical methods.
One of the applications is 3D imaging of bone tissue in mice, which is commonly required in medicine research for osteoporosis. The structures of interest are at the resolution limits of current micro-CT scanners. We are working on advanced computational methods that allow for the computation of higher resolution images based on the same scanner data. The downside: computation time, which was already a major issue, increases even further.

Fortunately, these computations can be carried out in parallel on graphics hardware, much faster than when using normal CPUs. Graphical Processing Units (GPUs) are becoming more and more common now for all kinds of scientific computing. For suitable applications, a single GPU already has the computing power equivalent to a moderate CPU cluster. In collaboration with Tones.be and ASUS, We have now developed a PC design that incorporates 13 GPUs, resulting in a massive 12TFLOPS of computing power.
Although the system is up and running, we are still experiencing software stability issues, probably caused by an incompatibility between the video drivers and the BIOS and Linux modifications we had to use. Check out the blog for more details on the current status of FASTRA II.
The FASTRA II design contains six NVIDIA GTX295 dual-GPU cards, and one GTX275 single-GPU card. To fit all this hardware in a single PC case, a special cage was designed for the graphics cards, which are connected to the motherboard by flexible riser cables. To satisfy all 13 GPUs, The system has four power supplies. At full speed, it can outperform a moderately sized cluster of state-of-the-art CPUs. And guess what… this system costs less than 6000 euros!

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