Parallel Educational Appliance: Once upon a Mattress

LittleFeConvergence of good ideas into a coalesced one is normative for this millennia. It has has happened with PDA, camera, phone, and portable game system becoming today's smartphone; which is now converging with touchscreen notepad and keyboard into a next ubiquitous device. This blog post highlights convergence of hardware, software and curricula into a lowcost parallel educational appliance, almost free, with a next generation coming out this summer, ready to be wheeled into an undergraduate CS classroom.

The NCSI (National Computational Science Institute) gang of four, Paul Gray, Dave Joiner, Charlie Peck and myself, came up with the idea of ACME (A Computational Mobile Environment) in 2007. I previously wrote about in a prior blog post in 2009. A next 2011 version, a first version for a new, wider audience, is in the process of being birthed this summer. The hardware is still LittleFe, though more robust and fully featured. The software is still BCCD (Bootable Cluster CD, aka Bootable Compute Cluster Distribution), though also more robust and fully featured. The curricular component will still be pointed to by CSERD, though more robust and fully featured, and integrated into the BCCD.

LittleFe is a reference design for a portable computational cluster that is low cost at under $3K; easily transportable, since it comes packaged in a Pelican case with built in wheels); and fully featured (6 dual-core Intel Atom based boards, each with a nVidia chipset. This provides the three major kinds of parallel hardware in use today: shared memory cores, distributed memory on system boards, and general purpose graphical processing unit. Thanks to support from, Intel and the SC Steering committee, this summer we will have 25 LittleFe kits assembled, some at the Oklahoma University Advanced Parallel and Distributed workshop at the end July, and the rest at the SC11 conference in November. If you choose to purchase your own kit of parts, by summer we will have a training video to guide successful assembly of the kit of parts, deployment of the BCCD distro on what was assembled, and running curricular examples on the deployed software. Using footage from the two build outs, we will also make a video describing and motivating use of the system, which will help prying loose the $3k to purchase a kit of parts. There is still time to get in on the free LittleFe by applying at . Well, actually its not free, you have to have a realistic plan to create or port curricula onto the LittleFe platform and then carry out the plan.

The BCCD is a live CD that can actually transform a windows lab into a fully featured computational cluster in under 5 minutes and restore it to a Windows lab in even less time. We use the same ISO to deploy software on LittleFe so faculty/students using either version will have the same user interface and experience. The BCCD distro is available at

Computational Science Education Reference Desk (CSERD) , part of the National Science Digital Library (NSDL), points to verified, validated and accredited curricula developed by others. In reality, we hope there that many of the sites identifying exemplars will point to the BCCD, both as a love cluster CD, but also as a repository of vetted curricula working with the BCCD distro. We are stabilizing and expanding our version of the curricula as a foundation for the work done by the 25 LittleFe recipients that will commence this summer.

Another piece of the puzzle are the (National Computational Science Institute)NCSI summer workshops that are available for faculty from a wide variety of disciplines. They are extraordinary. Paul Steinberg and I interviewed Dave Valentine today who raved about it during the interview. I attended the first NCSI Parallel and Distributed workshop in 2003 and began helping teach them in 2004 (with Paul Grey and Dave and Charlie, oh my!).

You might think I just tied PEA (Parallel Educational Appliance) to "Once Upon A Mattress" to prompt you to reminisce about Carol Burnett's standout originating portrayal of Princess Winnifred, but in reality, it is the original Arabic definition of the word mattress that is at play. A mattress was a convergent breakthrough early in the last millennia, where cushions were thrown on the ground to be a foundation for sleep. A foundation. That is what this is all about. Our classrooms might some times be a place where students come to sleep, but having a solid engaging easily deployed parallel computational environment will go a long way in transforming sleepy lethargy into active engagement.

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MAD\pfsteinb's picture

It would be more accurate to talk of GPGPU capability, I think, and then the possibility of teaching with more open platforms like OpenCL could also enter the discussion. Not that I am biased ;-)

I think the addition of CUDA capability to LittleFe is brilliant. So this one appliance is now a "triple threat": students can run MPI, openMP and CUDA (or some combination of the three). How much more fun can you have!

MAD\pfsteinb's picture

Hi Tom, Great post as usual. First of all, I love the idea of an parallel educational appliance. The easier it is to bring parallelism into the classroom, to get parallel material into your course and to begin to make the necessary changes to the curriculum the better. My hat is off to all of you in NICSE for the work you have don and especially the the Gang of Four (you need a Little (Red?) Book to go along with the LittleFe).

What's great about the LittleFe system is how well it integrates with the many ongoing efforts around the world to get parallelism into the classroom. another great tool is the Intel Manycore Testing Lab which enables remote access to manycore systems specifically for classroom use.

The Summer workshops will indeed be a great foundation. I look forward to working with you and all the other folks in our community to support efforts to make parallelism the norm in computer and computational science education.

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