This lesson is in the early stages of development (Alpha version)

# Why use a Cluster?

## Overview

Teaching: 15 min
Exercises: 5 min
Questions
• Why would I be interested in High Performance Computing (HPC)?

• What can I expect to learn from this course?

Objectives
• Describe what an HPC system is

• Identify how an HPC system could benefit you.

Frequently, research problems that use computing can outgrow the capabilities of the desktop or laptop computer where they started:

• A statistics student wants to cross-validate a model. This involves running the model 1000 times – but each run takes an hour. Running the model on a laptop will take over a month! In this research problem, final results are calculated after all 1000 models have run, but typically only one model is run at a time (in serial) on the laptop. Since each of the 1000 runs is independent of all others, and given enough computers, it’s theoretically possible to run them all at once (in parallel).
• A genomics researcher has been using small datasets of sequence data, but soon will be receiving a new type of sequencing data that is 10 times as large. It’s already challenging to open the datasets on a computer – analyzing these larger datasets will probably crash it. In this research problem, the calculations required might be impossible to parallelize, but a computer with more memory would be required to analyze the much larger future data set.
• An engineer is using a fluid dynamics package that has an option to run in parallel. So far, this option was not used on a desktop. In going from 2D to 3D simulations, the simulation time has more than tripled. It might be useful to take advantage of that option or feature. In this research problem, the calculations in each region of the simulation are largely independent of calculations in other regions of the simulation. It’s possible to run each region’s calculations simultaneously (in parallel), communicate selected results to adjacent regions as needed, and repeat the calculations to converge on a final set of results. In moving from a 2D to a 3D model, both the amount of data and the amount of calculations increases greatly, and it’s theoretically possible to distribute the calculations across multiple computers communicating over a shared network.

In all these cases, access to more (and larger) computers is needed. Those computers should be usable at the same time, solving many researchers’ problems in parallel.

## Jargon Busting Presentation

Open the HPC Jargon Buster in a new tab. To present the content, press `C` to open a clone in a separate window, then press `P` to toggle presentation mode.

## I’ve Never Used a Server, Have I?

Take a minute and think about which of your daily interactions with a computer may require a remote server or even cluster to provide you with results.

## Some Ideas

• Checking email: your computer (possibly in your pocket) contacts a remote machine, authenticates, and downloads a list of new messages; it also uploads changes to message status, such as whether you read, marked as junk, or deleted the message. Since yours is not the only account, the mail server is probably one of many in a data center.
• Searching for a phrase online involves comparing your search term against a massive database of all known sites, looking for matches. This “query” operation can be straightforward, but building that database is a monumental task! Servers are involved at every step.
• Searching for directions on a mapping website involves connecting your (A) starting and (B) end points by traversing a graph in search of the “shortest” path by distance, time, expense, or another metric. Converting a map into the right form is relatively simple, but calculating all the possible routes between A and B is expensive.

Checking email could be serial: your machine connects to one server and exchanges data. Searching by querying the database for your search term (or endpoints) could also be serial, in that one machine receives your query and returns the result. However, assembling and storing the full database is far beyond the capability of any one machine. Therefore, these functions are served in parallel by a large, “hyperscale” collection of servers working together.

## Key Points

• High Performance Computing (HPC) typically involves connecting to very large computing systems elsewhere in the world.

• These other systems can be used to do work that would either be impossible or much slower on smaller systems.

• HPC resources are shared by multiple users.

• The standard method of interacting with such systems is via a command line interface.