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I currently am a student worker at a medium sized university. i work for the college of science (includes math, stat, comp sci, physics, chem, and biology) and as a "technician"; which basically is a catch all for basic trouble shooting and fixing faculty computer, setting up computer labs, writing custom programs, and administrating web and database servers.

We currently have 3 groups of fairly new computers set up for clusters, however they are not in use and abandoned. I would like to do some kind of cluster project, but my biggest hurdle is what to do on/with the clusters. If i knew what applications or projects could utilize a cluster, I could go from there. I have read about clusters being used for video rendering, generating rainbow tables/password cracking, and high availability web servers. But I was looking for something more academic; something that could be presented to the professors and deans as something of actual academic usability.Not something that will never be used.

I don't really want to do video rendering because there is non need to render video. Password cracking would not have much use to the college. High availability web cluster has no use because we don't host but a few static faculty pages and our site (network and the university's websites is another dept). Tools that I could present to the math, physics, or chem department would be ideal. However I'm open for ideas or examples.

Setting up / administering Linux or whatever OS or program is not the problem. It is what to do with the cluster.

tl/dr: what to do with a cluster in a academic setting.


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What job requiring 3 sets of clustered 'puters were they originally bought for? Or is that a difference between the academic and commercial world? ;) – Ryan Oct 5 '09 at 18:40
one was originally the chemistry department's cluster, bought and paid for by the chemistry department, same thing with the physics department and computer science department. however throughout the years they have been "abandoned" and my dept inherited them. – iloveboxcutters Oct 5 '09 at 20:18
This question is off-topic under current topicality rules. – HopelessN00b Jan 22 '15 at 6:58
up vote 7 down vote accepted

you could install debian plus the various debian-science packages on these machines. that includes quite a large collection of free software programs for several common computation problems in science, as well as general libraries and toolkits such as openmpi.

see also it contains a list of the sub-projects or Tasks of the DebianScience project as well as listings of the software packages available, with descriptions of what they do/are for, and the state of the packages. The main D-S wiki page above has a broken link to this page, so here's a fixed link.

I currently work as sysadmin in the school of chemistry of a university here in .au, and have recently been building several machines for the academics with the DebianScience/Chemistry packages installed plus commercial/proprietary software such as Gaussian03, QCHEM, and WebMO (which is a web/java front-end to Gaussian, QCHEM, MOPAC, and other computational chemistry programs).

I'm more familiar with the Chemistry programs in the Debian Science packages, but i know there's also a huge amount of software for other fields such as Physics, Astronomy, Biology, Mathematics, and so on. Also more "general" packages for data aquisition, typesetting (TeX, etc), computation libraries for Fortran, C, python, and more.

if nothing else, that debian-science wiki page above will give you a good overview of the kinds of software that science academics might be interested in on computing clusters. You said you have three groups of machines for clusters, so once you've got the overview on what kinds of software are available you can talk to some of the professors and start making plans for rebuiling/re-purposing the machines.

one final word of advice - pick one academic (or group) that is enthusiastic (or at least interested) and has clear identifiable needs and give them something useful. when the other groups hear about it, they will want you to do the same for them. – cas Jul 12 '09 at 22:44
thank you, i will be sending out an email to all the faculty and department heads tomorrow to see if any bite. – iloveboxcutters Jul 12 '09 at 23:32

When I was sysadmin for a University lab I was faced with a vast amount of processing power (around 50 iMacs) that was largely underused, so wanted to do the same thing that you're suggesting. To gain the initial traction I found a PhD student who had some parallelisable problem - this was Physics, so he had a Lattice QCD simulation - and set about porting his code to the Mac so it would run under Xgrid. When he got results back in 1/3 the time it would have taken on the shared Sun cluster, on what was effectively "free" CPU time, the rest of the department paid attention.

i hate seeing all the processing power we have go to waste. we don't have a PhD program, and me being more or less the sysadmin and an undergrad says alot about our grad program, as i am often helping them and the faculty with setting up their projects and requirements for classes (linux php mysql and networking stuff). i have even thought about turning our labs into part of the clusters at night to utilize their power, b/c the lab comps are much newer and more powerful the that cluster nodes. – iloveboxcutters Jul 12 '09 at 23:37

A hadoop cluster could be used to process massive amounts of data if they have the need.


You could set up some webcams around campus and use facial recognition software to track people (anonymously) and look at any patterns that emerge.

The cluster would be used for performing the facial recognition from the webcam images.

we have actually thought about doing something similar to track how many people use our computer lab. we would camera above the door and track the direction of people walking by. – iloveboxcutters Jul 12 '09 at 21:28

This article just came across one of my rss feeds and I thought about this question. It lists 25 opensource HPC applications. And it includes a number of science related applications from a number of disciplines.


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