When Beowulf tackled supercomputer tech

A Beowulf cluster supercomputer at McGill  University

Image from http://bit.ly/2j1HN7N. Copyrighted free use.

In my searching for a Beowulf story to cover this week, I discovered one of the ways in which the poem carries on in secret. Through a simple search for “Beowulf” I came across the website for Project Beowulf. On the “History” page of this site, it’s explained that the company specializes in multi-node computing, particularly the kind known as “Beowulf Clusters”. Multi-node computing refers to the connection of two or more commercial grade computers to create a single virtual supercomputer, and these are called “Beowulf clusters” when connected in a community-sourced, and DIY way (as defined by Wikipedia).

Reading deeper into this matter, I discovered that this style of virtual supercomputer construction was invented by Thomas Sterling and Donald Becker, in 1994 while the two were working for NASA. After that point in his career, Becker went on to found Scyld Computing Corporation, a company that specializes in Linux-based Beowulf supercomputing.

Despite the fact that Becker’s company is another reference to Old English culture (a “scyld” was a bard or poet of the time), according to Becker in this interview with Joab Jackson of GCN.com, it was actually Thomas Sterling who came up with the name. In his own words, Sterling was something of an Anglophile, and the line ‘Because my heart is pure, I have the strength of a thousand men.’ This line only appears in some translations, but it resonated with what the two wanted to do: create a supercomputer that anyone could build, and which would therefore lead to the formation of a community around its further development. So “Beowulf” fit.

I find this connection to Beowulf especially interesting because it’s a subtle way in which the poem’s legacy carries on. Sterling may have been a fan of Beowulf, but it doesn’t seem that it was just enthusiasm that led them to the name.

Like the heroic protagonist of the poem’s having the strength of 30 men, Beowulf clusters contain the power of several individual processors. They’re also able to undertake heroic feats of scientific computing, answering questions that science conjures up just as Beowulf was able to destroy the monsters which the actions of humanity stirred to life.

Beowulf is a great name for such supercomputers, and a fantastic reference that gives the ancient poem a subtle presence in our lives. After all, back in 2005 Beowulf clusters made up over half of the supercomputers on the annual list of the top 500 supercomputers. Even more recently, the ease of these clusters’ creation has allowed at least one person to build a supercomputer out of inexpensive raspberry pi processors, and Thomas Sterling, the co-creator of the Beowulf cluster is still working with it to push the boundaries of High Performance Computing (HPC).

Although I’m not much of a tech guy, and really only know a thing or two about simple programming languages like HTML, this connection between Beowulf and the modern world might just be my favourite to date. It feels like an in-joke that I can easily smirk at when it’s tossed across the cafeteria table even if I wasn’t there when it happened.

What do you think of naming modern inventions after ancient characters and stories? What’s your favourite example of a new thing having an old name?

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