Sandia LabNews

Sandia and Compaq Computer Corp. team together to set world record in large database sorting

Machine sorts information three times faster than previous record

Just as scientists need very fast number-crunching computers to replace physical testing with computer models, business people need a corollary procedure: very fast data sorting — the ability to manipulate huge amounts of data rapidly.

Now Sandia has teamed with Compaq Computer Corporation, the largest global supplier of personal computers, to sort information three times faster than the previous record, at approximately two-thirds the installed cost of current techniques.

"For big-data problems, this is the fastest sorting machine known to man," says computer researcher Carl Diegert (9215) of the Sandia-located computer. "The technology to do this came from Compaq. The will and the vision came from Sandia."

The Sandia cluster of computers now has sorted a terabyte of data — about the information contained in a million unabridged dictionaries — in under 50 minutes. The previous record, on a shared-memory supercomputer rather than a cluster of industry-standard computers, was 2.5 hours.

Importance of the achievement

"Our joint work on the 144-processor system was driven by Sandia’s need to process and visualize simulation data from other large, massively parallel computers, while Compaq’s interest was the commercially important sorting application," says George Davidson (9215), Sandia project manager. The importance of sorting, already high, should increase as large-scale data storage (called warehousing) increases. Estimates suggest that in three years, warehouses will increase from a 272-gigabyte average to a predicted 6.5 terabytes, and from a $15 billion to $113 billion market by 2002, according to a marketing report from a consulting firm, the Palo Alto Management Group. Says John Rose, Compaq Senior Vice President and General Manager: "Compaq, along with key partners like Sandia, is demonstrating that clustered Windows NT systems can deliver the performance, reliability, and cost-effectiveness required by high-end applications in technical and commercial markets. This particular demonstration is striking evidence of how far and how fast we’ve progressed."

According to Amy Behle, business development manager of the US database market for MUSE Technologies, a small Albuquerque-based company, "Database companies will be interested because sorting is absolutely fundamental to database queries. For decision support, running more queries in the same amount of time or getting results faster yields real business value."

"Our system is a cluster of 72 off-the-shelf dual Pentium II Proliant servers running Windows NT and linked by ServerNet," says Carl. "We call it Kudzu because of its propensity (like the plant) to grow in any direction." The current arrangement, he says, for Sandia is a prototype used to verify the correct operation of a larger platform by "setting up, completing, and verifying a terabyte sort. "Unique to Kudzu," he says, "is its high-performance communications architecture. This, based today on Compaq’s first-generation ServerNet hardware, allows Kudzu’s 72 component computers to work as one and is, we believe, the world’s largest of its kind. As costs drop over time, such arrangements will become commonplace in commercial and scientific operations."

Faster, better visualization

Carl believes it was Sandia’s drive for faster, cheaper, scalable machines that "pushed vendors to achieve this goal sooner than otherwise."

For Sandia, "The overall purpose of this particular cluster is to develop faster, better ways of visualizing the results of complex simulations," not just sorting, says Sandia physicist Milt Clauser (9215). "Visualization of terabyte data sets is crucial to our understanding of large, complex simulations, and the terabyte sort is an important first step toward our goal of developing the next generation of visualization computers."

The program is part of a DOE long-range plan to revolutionize computing and information technology at the Labs, and was the result of a two-year cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) between Sandia and Compaq. The core of the mission was to develop powerful distributed computing, data manipulation, and visualization technologies.

For the nonmilitary customer, the project’s goal was to develop a technology that would reduce complexity, increase flexibility, and improve service, all at large cost savings. Potential markets for cluster-based technologies would benefit from Compaq’s leadership in the computer industry and Sandia’s decades-long leadership in parallel computing, including its development with Intel of the world’s first teraflop computer, says George. To these ends, each partner funded the CRADA research with matching investments of $400,000 annually. All components of the cluster are currently available on the commercial market.

"The clustering architecture that scaled to this unprecedented sort performance uses the same key to scalability that Sandia pioneered in 1987 and which evolved to become the planet’s first teraflops machine with over 9,000 processors, put into operation by Sandia in 1996," says Carl. "The implications for commercial markets are significant, in that it demonstrates that large clusters that share a system network rather than a common memory have the power and sophistication to handle the big jobs at much lower costs."