Sure, Lego blocks can create cool mini-forts and clunking robots. But how about a supercomputer?
A team at computational engineers at the University of Southampton in the U.K., aided by the 6-year-old son of one of the team members, has done just that. The team used 64 Raspberry Pi computers, held together by the Lego blocks, and they've now published a do-it-yourself, step-by-step guide in case you'd like to build your own supercomputer.
Raspberry Pi is a credit card-size, single-board computer that was developed in the U.K. by the Raspberry Pi Foundation in order to teach basic computer science in the schools. It features a Broadcom system-on-a-chip, with an ARM 700 MHz processor, VideoCore GPU, and 256 MB of memory. An SD card is used for booting and storage. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is supported by the University of Cambridge Computer Lab and Broadcom.
The design was developed by Professor Simon Cox and his son James, and the machine is constructed in two Lego towers. Cox and Cox had been testing the Raspberry Pi over the summer, programming it using Python and Scratch languages.
The control code was written in Python using Microsoft's Visual Studio.
Scratch is a programming language developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it's intended to help children learn to create their own interactive stories, animations, games and art. The entire system was built for a bit more than $4,000, excluding the Ethernet switches.
Professor Cox said in a statement that, "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." In fact, getting enough of the $35 Raspberry Pi's was the biggest challenge, since the Foundation regularly sells out of them shortly after each batch is created. The entire Lego-linked supercomputer uses 64 processors and has 1Tb of memory, composed of a 16GB SD card in each Raspberry Pi.
The First Test
He added that the team installed and built all of the necessary software on the Pi computers, beginning with a standard Debian Wheezy system image that is used for the Raspberry Pi.
The supercomputer is named the Iridis-Pi, in homage to the University of Southampton's older and more conventionally built Iridis supercomputer. Iridis-Pi runs off a single 13 Amp mains socket, and uses a Message Passing Interface and 100 Mb Ethernet to communicate between nodes.
The first test on the supercomputer, Professor Cox said, was, appropriately enough, a calculation of Pi. Cox noted that this "is a well-known first test for any new supercomputer."
He added that the team sees the low-cost supercomputer "as a starting point to inspire and enable students to apply high-performance computing and data handling to tackle complex engineering and scientific challenges, as part of our ongoing outreach activities."
James added that Iridis-Pi is "great fun."