I saw a 400 G5 CPU cluster today

This isn’t mobile tech related but something I saw today was so cool and surprising to me that I want to share with everyone.  I saw my first Mac cluster today and the locale was a place I would never have expected to see one.  I should give you a little background so this makes sense to you so I’ll start by telling you a little bit about the work that I do.  I promise I won’t bore you too much.

I work in the seismic imaging industry and basically we take raw data recorded in the field and process it using special geophysical software until it comes out at the end as a 3D cubic image of the earth’s subsurface.  Oil companies use these images to determine the presence and exact location of oil traps miles below the earth’s surface so accurate decisions concerning oil well drilling can be made.  One seismic survey can consist of a billion raw data traces that must be processed as a volume and is Terrabytes of data that must be manipulated.

The compute power required to process this field data is staggering and until just a few years ago was done solely in the domain of the giant supercomputer.  These computers were the Crays and IBMs and literally cost millions of dollars to purchase and almost as much to run due to high power and air conditioning requirements.  This changed about six years ago with the introduction of the Intel cluster.  These rack-mounted computers are clustered together and with the right software what used to take huge supercomputers can now be done by hundreds or even thousands of CPUs clustered together with a fiber backplane.  Around that time I installed one of the first such clusters (2048 CPUs) in our industry at the last real company I worked for and the amount of compute power that can be leveraged from a cluster is mind-boggling.  Since that time I have seen dozens of such clusters as this has become the standard for computing centers in the oil industry.  These clusters are invariably Intel or Athlon CPU-based due to economics because as cheap as a single CPU can be picked up at Fry’s imagine buying 2000 of them at a whack.

So what does all this have to do with the Mac?  I visited a company today and it was obvious they couldn’t wait to show me their new computer room.  Much to my surprise they had just installed a cluster of 400 G5 Mac CPUs in a neat rack in a corner of the computer room and were already entering the second phase with 600 more on the way.  They ported their proprietary software to the Mac from the original Linux code and are totally switching their platform to the Mac.  All of their seismic imaging specialists on staff are now working on Mac G5 workstations with Apple Cinema Displays to do the interactive imaging.

I asked them how the Mac CPUs were economical compared to Intel or Athlon CPUs and the answer they gave really surprised me.  Their experience over the last few years with both x86 based CPUs and G4/5 CPUs has shown that the G5s use less power and run cooler when hundreds of them are clustered in a single rack. Anyone who has been in a room with hundreds of x86 rack-mounted CPUs can attest to the heat that is generated when they are all computing simultaneously.  It will literally wash over you if you stand behind one of these racks.  The statement that G5 CPUs run slightly cooler in a rack really surprised me but they assured me they had done their own testing to confirm the findings prior to installing hundreds of them in their shop.  It will be interesting to see if other companies follow this lead and if they will port their software to the Mac operating system.  All of those Mac pizza boxes just looked so cool in the neat rack.