Swinburne Linux supercomputer tastes Apple RAID

Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing has implemented a fibre channel RAID storage system for its 130-node cluster.

The cluster – a mixture of 100 Dell dual Xeon servers at Swinburne in Victoria and 30 Dell Xeon servers at Parkes in NSW – is used for processing the centre’s astrophysical data.

The centre’s director, Professor Matthew Bailes, said the supercomputer had a low level of storage compared with its processing power.

“We looked at upgrading the supercomputer but that would have been too expensive for what we needed,” Professor Bailes said. “Although we don’t have much to do with Apple, after seeing its new Xserve RAID storage device we decided to evaluate it.”

After performing an initial evaluation of a 2.52TB Xserve RAID, Bailes was happy with its performance and price.

“The Xserve RAID is the cheapest system of its type and none of the other mainstream players have a comparable price,” he said. “Also, at around 100Mbps read and write to disk, it is faster than our SCSI system which has an I/O of 50Mbps.”

The centre purchased six Xserve RAID systems with a combined storage capacity of 13.2TB for “around $100,000 including education and volume discounts”.

“Four of the units are in Swinburne, one is at the Parkes radio telescope, and the other is at the Narrabri (NSW) radio telescope,” Bailes said. “The fact that the disks are ATA means they are a lot cheaper than SCSI.”

Apple’s Xserve RAID storage system uses 7200 RPM ATA/100 disks, each with a capacity of 180GB. With 14 disk bays in each Xserve RAID, the total storage capacity is 2.52TB but is less if used as a RAID device.

“We run ours with RAID level 5 which enables redundancy but one disk must be used for parity data making the useable storage about 2.2TB,” Bailes said. “The disks are hot-swappable and have a fibre channel interface to server.”

Interestingly, the centre’s supercomputer, which runs Linux, experienced no difficulty in setting up the Xserve RAID.

“Apple was a bit sceptical as to whether or not it would work with Linux,” he said. “We tried it with Linux, and after installing the fibre channel card and recompiling the kernel we had it up and running in about 15 minutes. The Java-based XServe management tool tends to work better on OS X than Linux and one utility only worked on a Mac.”

According to Bailes, the centre records 13TB of data per day, which gets processed in real time down to 30GB and then compressed further to 3KB.

“It would be nice to see Apple expand the capacity of the disks inside the Xserve RAID to 300GB,” Bailes said.

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