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Donation Received from Genesi and Freescale

By admin - Posted on 19 December 2006


LittleFe, a portable computational cluster for educational use developed by a team including Paul Gray, associate professor of computer science at the University of Northern Iowa, recently received a donation of 40 Power PC-based (PPC) embedded motherboards from Genesi and Freescale, two private manufacturers of PPC processors.

'The whole point of LittleFe,' said Gray, 'is to give students hands-on experience with clusters and science. Because of LittleFe, the science made possible through high-performance computing is more accessible and engaging.' LittleFe was exhibited to high acclaim at Supercomputing 2006, an international computer conference on high-performance computing, networking, storage and analysis, held in November in Florida.

LittleFe has several advantages, according to Gray, who was named education program chair for Supercomputing 2008. Many institutions and teaching environments do not have access to parallel platforms for parallel and distributed computing education. 'An eight-server cluster can cost as much as $35,000, while LittleFe costs about $2,500,' he said. 'If a school does have an eight-server cluster, it is usually reserved for research.' LittleFe weighs less than 50 pounds, can travel via checked baggage on an airplane and sets up in 10 minutes wherever there is a 110V outlet and a wall to project an image on, Gray said.

The name LittleFe is a play on words, Gray explained. 'Fe' is the chemical symbol for iron, and the 'Big Irons' are traditionally associated with parallel computing, which is the coordinated execution of processes, typically distributed across several processors, working together to solve a larger task or to solve a problem faster.

'The donated PPC-based motherboards, worth about $24,000, are extremely powerful, small and energy efficient, which makes them consistent with our efforts to build portable, high-performance, computing classroom clusters,' said Gray. Motherboards are the main printed circuit board in a computer.

Two years in the making, LittleFe uses as its operating system the Bootable Cluster CD (BCCD), which is a CD image that boots up into a pre-configured distributed-computing environment. The BCCD image provides a nondestructive overlay method to run a full-fledged parallel-computing environment on most workstation-class systems.

'This project shows that UNI can both do valuable research work and play a major role in disseminating that work to a larger audience,' said Gene Wallingford, head of UNI's computer science department.

Other members of the team (which refers to itself as 'the usual suspects') that designed LittleFe are Dave Joiner of Kean University in Union, N.J., Thomas Murphy of Contra College in San Pablo, Calif., and Charles Peck of Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. The team has demonstrated LittleFe in several venues, including two workshops in Texas this past summer that were sponsored by the National Computational Science Institute and the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, as well as EuroPar, an annual conference on parallel computing held in Europe.

In November, the team gave a presentation at Joint Educational Facilities (JEF), a community-based K-12 organization in Washington, D.C., that works primarily with junior and senior high school students, teaching them advanced computing sciences and mathematical topics. JEF is the first educational organization to adopt the LittleFe units for education and outreach. Its director, Jesse Bemley, said he was very excited that the JEF participants would be taking a first step into the world of high-performance computing. The team gave a similar presentation at Montgomery Blair High School, one of the Maryland Virtual High School affiliates.

'We've had a very enthusiastic response wherever we've been,' said Gray, who noted that LittleFe has been discussed in interviews aired on National Public Radio. In November of 2005, LittleFe received an honorable mention from the Krell Institute's Undergraduate Computational Engineering and Sciences award program. For more information on LittleFe, visit its Web site at

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