IN THE WELL-KNOWN STONE SOUP FABLE, a wandering soldier stops at a poor village and says he will make soup by boiling a cauldron of water containing only a shiny stone. The townspeople are skeptical at first but soon bring small offerings: a head of cabbage, a bunch of carrots, a bit of beef. In the end, the cauldron is filled with enough hearty soup to feed everyone. The moral: cooperation can produce significant achievements, even from meager, seemingly insignificant contributions.
Researchers are now using a similar cooperative strategy to build supercomputers, the powerful machines that can perform billions of calculations in a second. Most conventional supercomputers employ parallel processing: they contain arrays of ultrafast microprocessors that work in tandem to solve complex problems such as forecasting the weather or simulating a nuclear explosion. Made by IBM, Cray and other computer vendors, the machines typically cost tens of millions of dollars--far too much for a research team with a modest budget. So over the past few years, scientists at national laboratories and universities have learned how to construct their own supercomputers by linking inexpensive PCs and writing software that allows these ordinary computers to tackle extraordinary problems.
This article was originally published with the title The Do-It-Yourself Supercomputer.