Computational Methods Professor Simon Cox, and his son James, with their 1 TB supercomputer, housed in a Lego rack designed by James.

Ever dreamt of owning a supercomputer but didn’t have millions of dollars to spare? Thanks to some inventive thinking by one professor, you can now make a supercomputer all your own. All you’ll need is a collection of credit card-sized computers, some Legos, and about $4,000.

This summer Simon Cox, Professor of Computational Methods at the University of Southampton, wanted to get his 6-year-old son, James, interested in computing. At about the same time the makers of Raspberry Pi – the small Linux-based computer – suggested the Pis might be linked to form a single cluster. Even better. Why teach your son computing on a computer when you can teach him on a supercomputer?

To build it, they linked 64 Pis using software called Message Passing Interface (MPI), which provides a standard language and enables communication between the cluster nodes. Cox boosted meager storage of the Pis by fitting each of them with a 16GB SD card, bringing total storage capacity to about 1 TB, and equipped it with the free plug-in, ‘Python Tools for Visual Studio.’ for code developing. They named their supercomputer “Iridis-Pi,” after the University’s own supercomputer Iridis. Iridis-Pi’s power configuration is far from optimal, however, as each Raspberry Pi requires its own power supply.

The Raspberry Pi is already seriously popular among programming enthusiasts. It’s not very powerful, but then, it’s not supposed to be. Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton built it to be a low cost  learning tool, meant for hobbyists who wanted to tinker with and learn about Linux. At just $35 a piece, the Model B still has plenty of tools: a 700MHz ARM-11 processor, 256MB of RAM, HDMI output, 2 USB ports and an Ethernet port. It’s not supposed to replace your desktop, but supplement it, and it can do many things that a PC does. You can run spreadsheets, word-processing programs, create graphics, even play games.

How long before supercomputing power can fit on our desktops, or in our pockets? Kind of reminds you of ENIAC, doesn’t it?

The machine’s only just been built, so hopefully in the future Cox and James will show us what sorts of super-powered fun they’re having on the Iridis-Pi. But if you want to make one yourself, Cox has provided the building instructions here. Making the supercomputer cost Cox exactly $4,031. At $35 each, the Pis account for the bulk of the cost. Quite affordable, however, were the Legos used to build the rack. The honor of designing the Lego rack was given to James.

As Cox told Wired, “As soon as we were able to source sufficient Raspberry Pi computers we wanted to see if it was possible to link them together into a supercomputer. We installed and built all of the necessary software on the Pi starting from a standard Debian Wheezy system image and we have published a guide so you can build your own supercomputer.”

If you aren’t familiar, Debian Wheezy is the latest operating system created by the individuals of the Debian Project.

As competitors in the never ending supercomputer race know, supercomputing ain’t cheap, routinely running institutions hundreds of millions of dollars (a recent proposal in India is asking the government to fork over $900 million to produce the latest and greatest). So maybe the best thing about the Pi-based cluster is its cost. Four thousand bucks is still pretty steep for the casual hobbyist, but a small price to pay to be the only kid on the block with a supercomputer.

[image credits: Wired and Wikipedia]
images: Wired and Wikipedia

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singula...

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