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December 3, 2009

Professor motivates math students with technology

FROSTBURG — Frank Barnet was having epic thoughts when he set about naming his new computer.

An associate professor of math at Frostburg State University, he built it over the summer using four Sony PlayStation 3s — each a “node” in what’s known as a “cluster computer.”

“I was going to choose some heroic name,” said Barnet, noting that the type of cluster he built is known as a “Beowulf cluster.” “Something like ‘Odyssey.’”

“And this one would be named Homer,” he said, indicating the first node, “and this would be named Odysseus, and so on.”

In the end, Barnet settled on slightly less dignified names.

“I decided well, yes, I’m going to name this Homer,” said Barnet. “Homer Simpson. And this one is Bart, and Marge and Lisa.”

About 20 students and other math enthusiasts came to campus on a foggy, rainy Wednesday evening to hear Barnet talk about his cluster computer.

Typically built using inexpensive personal computer hardware and free software, a cluster computer is a group of linked computers that performs parallel computing tasks more quickly and cheaply than comparable high-performance computers.

Barnet decided to try to build one after reading about two professors at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who built a PlayStation cluster computer last year to do research on the “properties of gravity waves generated by the merger of two black holes.”

“They wrote a guide — not a very comprehensive guide — but at least a summary of what to do, a road map,” said Barnet, who needed a fast, inexpensive computer to better create computer animations.

“I said, well, that at least looks like something I could do,” said Barnet, who ended up spending about $1,700 on the computer — $400 for each of the PlayStation 3s, plus about $100 for a network switch.

“And if it fails, at least a PS3 computer, you can play games, it has a Blu Ray disc player, WiFi, Bluetooth, all of that.”

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