University of Antwerp builds desktop supercomputer with 13 NVIDIA GPUs
Almost a year and a half ago researchers of the University of Antwerp were among the first to take advantage of the latest developments in GPGPU technology to create FASTRA, a desktop PC with supercomputer power. Scientists of the ASTRA research group, part of the University of Antwerp’s Vision Lab, had only limited time allocation on the university’s CalcUA supercomputer at their disposal, and using regular PC hardware was no option as processing a dataset could take several weeks on a standard desktop PC.
Therefore they had to search for an alternative, and once they learned about GPGPU computing the researchers build a 4000EUR desktop supercomputer with four NVIDIA GeForce 9800 GX2 dual-GPU graphics cards. The results were stunning, for this niche application the eight NVIDIA GPUs outperformed the university’s three-year old 256-node supercomputer with AMD Opteron 250 2.4GHz processors. Besides the higher performance, other major advantages include the very low cost (4000EUR for FASTRA vs 3.5 million euro for the real supercomputer) and much lower power consumption.
FASTRA was one of the first illustrations of what's possible with the massive parallel computing power GPGPU computing has to offer to scientists, and it’s possible that the project inspired NVIDIA to launch the Tesla Personal Supercomputer a couple of months later. These GPU-based desktop supercomputers should not be seen as a replacement for real supercomputers though, graphics cards are very efficient for applications with highly parallel workload but they can’t match supercomputers in other areas. While some people think it’s blasphemy to refer to systems like FASTRA as supercomputers, it can’t be denied, however, that GPGPU computing is giving millions of researchers and individuals the opportunity to get supercomputing-like power on their desk. GPUs are now being adopted by real supercomputers, and Bright Side of News recently wrote that as much as nine out of ten new high-performance computing (HPC) systems will feature at least one GPU or a whole GPGPU server for evaluation purposes.
The original FASTRA system (pictured below) delivers a theoretical computing power of four teraflops and was probably one of the most powerful desktop PCs at the time, but as the researchers came across new problems in the application domain of advanced 3D image reconstruction they were craving for a system with even more power.