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Fall 1999


Undergrads Get Hands-On Experience With TOP Reconfigurable Supercomputer

Undergraduate students Jonathan Scott (top left), Luke Scharf (left), Christian Laughlin (top right) and John Shiflet (bottom right) enjoy the teamwork and challenge of working on the Tower of Power project.
At most universities, the terms "hands-on," "supercomputers," and "undergraduates" are rarely used in the same sentence. However, at Virginia Tech, a team of undergraduates is working with faculty members and graduate researchers, building and testing the Tower of Power supercomputer and developing related applications and software tools.

Billed as the world's most powerful configurable computer, the Tower of Power was developed by faculty members Peter Athanas and Mark Jones. It relies on a network of 16 Pentium II-based PCs, each with ultra-fast networking interfaces and reconfigurable computing boards. The system was funded by NSF and current projects are funded by DARPA.

"It's a one-of-a-kind supercomputer," said Jones. "For certain applications, including image processing, data bases, and simulations, it has the potential to deliver high performance at a low cost. Researchers can configure the system to use all of its resources for a specific computation." The machine is serving as a high-performance computing resource for several research projects and as a reconfigurable computing testbed.

Jones and Athanas actively recruit students at all levels to work on the effort. To date, 13 undergraduates and 26 graduate students have been involved. Undergraduate students, selected according to their interest, skills, and experience, are typically involved in software, development, and system administrative duties.

Many of the students are involved in various aspects of developing tools for programmers to enhance application development for the machine. One of the major tools under development, the application program interface (API), is aimed at providing a developer with the ability to write a single host program that controls multiple adaptive computing boards and the communications between the boards.

Jonathan Scott (Phil/CpE, '00) described the API as "a friendly interface, like Windows, instead of the present interface that is so specific that few developers can use it easily." Although the actual programming is not difficult, he said, some challenges come in with discovering undocumented functions of the boards. "The greatest challenge, however, is communications among team members," he said.

"Since nobody has done this before, it's very much a learning process and we end up revising as we write," he said. "As any one of us comes across a bug, we correct the system as we go. We find it's important that we communicate our changes to the rest of the team."

Lou Pochet (CpE, '99) enjoys the team atmosphere. "This is the most fun I've ever had," he said. "Not only is it the ground floor of a new technology, but in this group, everybody is in it together. We fight out problems on our own, then get help from others on the team. If that doesn't work, we know we can always go to one of the professors - they have infinite patience and can hand you answers all day," he said.

Luke Scharf (CS, '01) had experience in his family's computer service and repair business and has been working on the team as a system administrator. "From a system administrator's point of view, this is 16 different machines. We're working to be able to split very large problems 16 ways on 80 FPGAs, to work in concert to solve the problem," he said.

After spending time on the team, he decided he wanted to know more about hardware, and to study computer engineering in addition to computer science. "There are clever ways to sort in hardware that you can't do in software," he said. "By knowing both aspects, you can do things really fast or create a machine that does things really fast. A machine that is infinitely fast would make my life much easier."

For more information, please visit: www.ccm.ece.vt.edu.

The Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Virginia Tech

Last Updated, October 15, 1999
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