An experiment held April 3 by researchers at the University of San Francisco (USF) offered a new twist to the latest trend in supercomputing: using off-the-shelf computers networked together to generate the kind of processing power capable of solving the most complex research problems.

Last fall, students at Virginia Tech proved they could create a low-cost supercomputer by wiring together off-the-shelf desktops. The twist in the USF experiment was that hundreds of participants gathered in the university gymnasium for a one-day event designed to determine whether they could spontaneously muster enough power to compare with the world’s strongest machines.

Though organizers failed to break into the ranks of the world’s top 500 supercomputers as they had hoped, they said the event, which they called “Flashmob I,” was a success nonetheless.

“Flashmob is about democratizing supercomputing,” said John Witchel, a graduate student at USF who codeveloped the concept. “It’s about giving supercomputing power to the people so that we can decide how we want supercomputers to be used.”

Supercomputers perform highly sophisticated functions, such as predicting weather patterns, modeling biological processes, or animating movies. Most are run by government laboratories or big corporations because they are expensive, sometimes costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

The April 3 flashmob event was a dry run designed to measure how much computing power could be generated during a spontaneous gathering, rather than tackle a specific task.

About 660 volunteers took part, including programmers, self-described “computer geeks,” teenagers, college students, and researchers. Cables connecting various laptops and desktops were strewn across the gym.

“I just want to be part of history,” said Glenn Montano, a USF senior majoring in computer science.

Organizers had hoped to break into the ranks of the worlds top 500 supercomputers by generating more than 500 gigaflops of power. The top spot is held by a Japanese computer that generates about 35,000 gigaflops.

The April 3 event managed to generate 180 gigaflops, not enough to make the Top 500 list. Still, organizers said they were pleased.

“This proves that this kind of computing can be competitive with computers that cost tens of millions of dollars,” Witchel said.

The term “flashmob” comes from the spontaneous internet-organized gatherings that gained popularity last year. During the events, hundreds of people suddenly appear at a predetermined location, perform a wacky stunt–such as wearing purple hats or spinning in circles–then quickly disperse, leaving bystanders scratching their heads.

The USF event was not the first time citizens have pooled their computing power. For example, the University of California-Berkeley’s SETI@home project has created a “virtual” supercomputer through thousands of internet-connected PCs to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Last fall, students at Virginia Tech created a cluster of off-the-shelf Power Macs that ranked as the world’s third-fastest supercomputer. The cost: about $7 million, significantly less than the custom supercomputers that labs use for weather and weapons simulations, chemical experiments, and other highly complex projects. (See “Va. Tech knits off-the-shelf Macs into third-fastest supercomputer,”

Organizers hope the Flashmob concept can eventually be applied to problems requiring high-powered computing such as the study of global warming or AIDS research.


USF FlashMob I

Top 500 Supercomputing Sites

SETI@home Project