Using Computation and Communication to Solve Problems


What is the difference between serial computing and parallel computing? What does a supercomputer do? Recently, 52 Montgomery Blair High School students learned the answers to those questions when five professors from the fields of computer science, math and physics came to Blair to demonstrate LittleFe, a portable, 6-processor parallel computer. Supercomputers are valuable tools for many scientific and engineering problems such as weather forecasting, protein folding, genomic sequencing, and even potato chip packaging! Supercomputers achieve their high speeds by splitting a problem into parts that can be solved simultaneously; hence the name, parallel computing.



LittleFe, a 6 node, 1GHz, 512MB, x86 unit


Montgomery Blair High School students


Paul Gray from the University of Northern Iowa illustrated the difference between serial and parallel processing by asking the students to imagine how long it would take them to introduce themselves to the group one at a time. That would be an example of serial processing. Then he invited all 52 of them to say their names all at once. Although the resulting noise was unintelligible, it was fast. Parallel processing requires strategies that result in fast and intelligible results.


Using a dart board simulation as an example, Dave Joiner from Kean University in New Jersey showed how a problem could be divided in parts with each part assigned to a different processor. For the 6 processors of LittleFe, the dart board was divided into 6 pie-shaped wedges into which random hits were made. To calculate the score for a random game of darts, the results from each processor are then shared.



The dart board

A one-sixth slice


Area under a curve


Parallel processing can also be used to find the area under a curve in lightning-fast speed. Tom Murphy from Contra Costa College in California demonstrated how a region under a curve could first be divided into six regions, each given to a separate processor. Each processor can then subdivide its parts into a thousand or more smaller trapezoids depending on the accuracy needed in the result. After each processor calculates the sum of the trapezoids assigned to it, the six sums can be added together to provide the total area. Consequently, the sum when calculated by six processors can be found in 1/6th the amount of time it would take for a single processor.



Not all problems can be divided in such a way as to achieve this speed-up advantage. Charlie Peck from Earlham College in Indiana showed the group that while some problems, like area under a curve, can be divided into 6 independent parts; other problems have parts that are necessarily interdependent. He used protein folding as an example. In protein folding, the shape of the protein is partially determined by whether its amino acids are attracted to water (hydrophilic) or repelled by water (hydrophobic). In this simulation, an amino acid necklace is placed in a water bath that is divided into 6 slices, one per processor, and distant groups of water molecules as treated as one big molecule to improve performance. Since amino acids in one slice are attracted to or repelled by water molecules in all six slices, communication between the slices occurs frequently. Solving the problem in parallel across six processors significantly speeds up the process, but less than the ideal 1/6th factor because of the added communication.




           Top View                    Side View



What do galaxies and protein folding have in common? Both are n-body problems, meaning that every object is affected by every other object. In galaxies, those objects are stars, each of which affects the others through gravitation and rotation. Dave Joiner demonstrated the GalaxSee simulation which showed a cluster of stars forming a disc-like galaxy when rotation is present. He explained that studies have shown that gravitation and rotation are not sufficient to explain all spiral galaxies, and that models of collisions can be used to extend our knowledge of galactic structure.



During a question and answer session after the presentation, Henry Neeman, Director of the OU Supercomputing Center for Education and Research (OSCER) in Oklahoma spent time explaining to individual students the role of high performance computing in modern science and the struggle between the demands of computation and communication in optimizing code for supercomputers.




Q&A Session


LittleFe Components


The students who attended this presentation were shown the power of parallel computing and the diverse problems to which supercomputing may be applied. At a LittleFe construction demonstration, students learned about the component parts and helped put one together. The diagram shows the six 512MB processor blades and the 1GB drive blade (lower right hand corner) that were used in the construction of a LittleFe.


The Bootable Cluster CD developed by Paul Gray at UNI may be used to turn a collection of networked PCs into a parallel computer.


The LittleFe Team


First Row (left to right)

Kristina Wanous, University of Northern Iowa

Susan Ragan, Maryland Virtual High School

Paul Gray, University of Northern Iowa

Henry Neeman, OU Supercomputing Center for Education and Research

Jared Ribble, Crownpoint Institute of Technology

Tom Murphy, Contra Costa College


Back Row (left to right)

Charlie Peck, Earlham College

Alex Lehmann, Earlham College

Chris Yazzie, Crownpoint Institute of Technology

Dave Joiner, Kean University

Scott Lathrop, TeraGrid