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Writing a technical RFP (Request for Proposal) for a cluster is not something to be taken lightly. There are many options available for clusters that must be researched and addressed before writing the technical RFP. Moreover, there are things one can put into a technical RFP that can help discriminate between vendors and help make your decision process easier (or at least make things clearer). To help with your procurement, there is an RFP outline/template provided at the end of the article.

This article was originally a synopsis of a tutorial given at the 2003 ClusterWorld Conference and Expo on how to write a technical cluster RFP. However, it has been expanded and edited to discuss some topics more in depth and to add topics that weren't discussed before.


Before beginning with a discussion of how to go about writing a technical cluster RFP, we should define some terms and go over some ground rules. First, let's define a technical RFP as a set of requirements for the cluster itself excluding procurement and company policies, such as, costs, warranties, delivery schedules, etc. However, there are cases where you might want to include warranties, support, delivery schedules, etc., in your technical RFP. Whether you include these or not is up to you and your company policies. In my opinion putting delivery schedules in the technical RFP is definitely warranted since it can impact the technical requirements.

In many cases, the RFP makes up the vast majority of the document that is sent to the vendors from the procurement group. However, the procurement group adds all of the required procurement procedures and legal language and policies. This article is not concerned with the procurement aspects of the RFP and/or purchasing process since these details vary from company to company. This article is interested in only the technical details of the RFP. But, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, some details that usually come from a procurement office can and should be put into the technical RFP because they affect the technical aspects of the cluster and they affect the technical evaluation.

In this article, I'll walk through the steps you should go through in writing the RFP. You may be surprised that the first step in writing an RFP is understanding your code(s).

Step One - Understanding Your Code(s) and Users - Profiling

We all want speed, glorious speed. And we want it for nothing. While we're at it, it would be nice if it were reliable, easy to maintain, use only a small amount of power, have a small foot print, and so on. However, we can't have this, sigh... . So what do we do? Well, we have to find the best system to meet our requirements. These requirements form the basis of our technical cluster RFP. This means you have to do your homework (seems like we never escape homework doesn't it?). The first step in writing our technical RFP is to understand the code(s) and understand the user base for our cluster. The generic term I'm going to use for understanding codes is, profiling, but I'm going to go beyond the usual meaning of the term profile. I use the term to mean profiling your codes and profiling your user base

Usage Profiling

Since clusters are almost always for technical computing, many people ask why they have to understand their user base. Profiling your user base is a very important source of information that many people over look when preparing for a technical cluster RFP. Determining what applications the users are running, how often they run them, the problem sizes, typical number of processors used, what time of day they run, etc., can be a great source of information.

For example, by profiling your users, you can determine the largest problem size and the number of processors for a single job. This will tell you the minimum "size" of the cluster (where size is the combination of number of processors and amount of memory per processor). You can also find the largest number of processors anyone is using in their runs or the largest amount of memory anyone is using in their runs.

It would also be good to have this same data; problem size and number of processors, for the past couple of years. You can use this historical data to make projections about the number of nodes you are likely to need, how much memory you might have to add, etc. More precisely, if the cluster is to last 3 years, which is the maximum you should keep a cluster, you need to know what the cluster should look like in 3 years (more on this later).

How do you get this user base information? Good question. There are many ways to get it. You can survey your user base on a periodic basis (but be careful, users don't like to fill out too many surveys). You can also watch your systems and capture job information from the queuing system and the nodes. Usually monitoring systems can help capture this information as well.

Application Profiling

The other side of the profiling coin is to profile the user applications themselves. I'm going to focus on MPI (Message Passing Interface) applications since they are probably the dominant class of cluster applications. The first step is to gather a list of parallel user applications. If you have access to the application's source code then your life can be a bit easier. Regardless, you need to profile your applications in the traditional sense of the word. That is, determine which parts of the code consume the most time including MPI functions.

How you profile depends upon the MPI implementation being used. Many of the main MPI implementations, such as MPICH, MPICH2, LAM, MPI-Pro, Scali MPI Connect, OpenMPI, all have ways to gather profiling information. The systems are flexible enough that you can gather a great deal of information or a little bit of data. From this information you want to know the message sizes and the number of messages passed for the various MPI functions used in the code. You also should look for how much total time is used in each MPI function call.

Now that you have all of this MPI data, what do you do with it? All of this data will help determine the typical message size and what MPI function(s) are used the most frequently. You can then pass this information on to prospective vendors to help them select an appropriate interconnect to bid. Or you can use the data to help you specify an interconnect for the RFP.

Since we're talking about parallel codes, we need to do some profiling on parallel systems and vary the number of processors. Ths point of this profiling is to gather scaling information (how your code performs as you increase the number of processors) as well as how much the memory usage per node changes as you increase the number of processors. To gather this information, if possible, start with one processor or one node and then increase the number of processors, but don't get use too many processors. Profiling codes can produce a great deal of information, so be careful how many processors you use. Also, don't worry about the cluster interconnect you are using. Get some profiling data first and then worry about the interconnect details later.

Now that you have this large database of profiling information of user applications, what do you do with it? That's a very good question and I'll try not to weasel out of answering it, but my general answer is that it depends upon your specific case (how's that for weaseling out of answering the question!). However, there are a few general things we can do with the data. First look at the message sizes as a function of the problem size and number of processes for a particular code. If the code is using a large number of relatively small messages, then the code is likely to be more sensitive to interconnect latency rather than bandwidth. The code is also likely to be require a small N/2 for best performance (see Sidebar 1 for an explanation of N/2). If the code(s) are using a large number of large messages, then it is likely that the code is going to be more sensitive to interconnect bandwidth than latency. If the message sizes are distributed fairly well, with not too many small or large messages, then the code is perhaps reasonably designed well and could scale fairly well, possibly even on Fast Ethernet (be sure to check the scalability results)

You should also look for scalability trends. How does the code perform on the same data set as you increase the number of processors? You can make the classic scalability plots of speedup on the y-axis and number of processors on the x-axis to get the scalability information. You can also increase the problem size as you increase the number of nodes. What you are looking for is the increase in MPI traffic as the number of nodes increases. Does this traffic increase much faster than the number of processors? If so, how much? This information gives some insight into how the code scales.

Sidebar One: Definition of N/2

The usually way to characterize the bandwidth and latency of an interconnect is to send messages of varying size between two nodes through the interconnect. You measure the time is takes for the messages to travel between the two nodes. From the time you can compute bandwidth (amount of data per second). Then you can create a plot of bandwidth on the y-axis and message size on the x-axis. The peak bandwidth is the largest value of bandwidth on the plot. Latency is the amount of time it takes to send a 0 byte packet.

During this testing, both nodes are sending and receiving data. N/2 is size of the message where you get half of the peak bandwidth. Why half of the peak bandwidth? N/2 is message size where you get the full bandwidth in one direction (i.e. sending data from one node to another). If you profile MPI codes you are likely to see lots of small messages. Being able to transmit the messages as fast as possible helps improve performance of the code and improve scalability. This is why N/2 is important.

Operation Counting

When you profile the user codes for MPI information, you can also take the opportunity to count certain operations of the codes at the same time. Most modern processors have hardware counters that allow you to count certain CPU operations while a code is running. You can get to this information by applying a small patch to the Linux kernel and then using some user-space tools to extract the information desired

There are several counter projects for Linux. The most wide-spread project , the Performance Application Programming Interface (PAPI), is hosted at the University of Tennessee. It is an application programming interface (API) that allows you to instrument your code to count events. There are also tools built on top of PAPI that allow you to watch your codes without having to modify the source code, such as PapiEx, TAU, Kojak, PerfSuite, and HPCToolkit. For Pentium or AMD processors, you have to use the perfctr kernel patch to get system level access to the counters. You can control what information you extract, but you should at least extract the following:

  • Number of floating-point operations performed
  • Total number of cycles
  • Total number of instructions
  • L1 cache misses
  • L2 cache misses
Coupling the time it took to run the code with the floating-point operation count allows you to compute FLOPS (Floating-Point Operations per Second). You can use the FLOPS information when you increase the number of processors and the problem size to watch the efficiency of the code. You can also see the effects of various size caches on the performance of the code by watching the cache misses

Step 2 - Testing Candidate Hardware

Now that you know what applications will be run on the cluster, what kind of datasets will be used, the size of the datasets, and how the applications behave and scale, you need to test candidate hardware. While this may seem like a logical thing to do, many people do not take the opportunity to test their codes prior to writing the technical RFP.

Testing before you issue the technical RFP will only give you more information to help write the specifications or to help judge the proposals from the vendors (still more homework!). Many vendors or labs or universities have clusters you can test on and they are very good about helping people test their codes. The beowulf mailing list is a good place to start. I will warn you that some people may give you free time on their machines for testing, but do not abuse that privilege by using too much time. Instead determine how much time you will need and talk to the cluster owner about the best time to run your tests. You might also discuss the possibility of sharing your results with the cluster owner.

Try to test on various processors at various speeds and various cache sizes (if possible). Also try to test on clusters with various cluster interconnects. Ideally you would like to test your codes in a cluster with multiple interconnects so you can sort out the effects of the interconnect on performance.

Also, try various MPI implementations. There are various implementations of the MPI standard and each has their own goals and assumptions. Testing your code(s) with the various MPI implementations will tell you which ones are appropriate for the particular code. Many of the MPI implementations also have tuning options that you can use to improve performance. Be sure to try these on the codes since several simple changes can greatly improve code performance

As I mentioned before, there are times when you can't test your codes. Perhaps they are commercial codes, or they are covered by security rules, or they are proprietary. All I can suggest is to do your best to test. I have even heard of vendors shipping small systems so you can do on-site testing (just be sure to wipe the disks thoroughly or better yet, replace the disks with new ones). If all of this won't work for you, then you may have to write pseudo-applications that approximate the behavior of your codes. This can be a great deal of work, but it means the codes are easy to ship for testing. In fact, writing applications simulators is exactly what the Department of Defense Major Shared Resource Centers (MSRC) do. They write codes that approximate the behavior of user codes

What happens if you don't test? I have seen many RFP's where it is obvious the writers have never done any testing. In that case, they rely on standard benchmarks to measure performance. I've use people use HPL (Top 500 benchmark), NAS Parallel Benchmark (NPB), and some other codes to measure performance of the system. The problem is that it in almost every case, they have no idea how the results of these benchmarks correlates to the performance of their codes. More over, I have seen people purchase clusters based solely on the HPL result (Top 500 benchmark). Unfortunately, the system they chose based on this performance measure is actually slower on their user codes than a another system that didn't have as high a Top500 result. This is the danger in not testing - you might end up with a system that doesn't run your codes as well as you thought.

Step 3 - Selecting Prospective Vendors

At this point you should have a pretty good idea of how your code(s) perform and you should have started testing. The next step I recommend is to start selecting vendors. A good way to get started is to do what every person does today - use Goggle. After your google search, you might spend some time on the beowulf mailing list asking for advice and recommendations for vendor candidates. You can also read the archives of various mailing lists to get an idea of companies you want to consider. You can also post to the mailing lists yourself and ask what vendors people recommend and which ones they stay away from. Be careful though, you will get conflicting recommendations. But, sometimes you can get names of companies you didn't even think of considering. However you chose to create a list of possible vendors you will end up with a list of various vendors, some small and some not so small. What do we do with the list? I recommend classifying the prospective vendors into various categories.

I like to classify vendors in three ways. The first way to classify vendors is based on their overall size, sales, and experience with computer systems. The second way to classify them is based on their size, sales, and experience with clusters. And the the third way is their understanding of clusters. Particularly how to architect them, how to tune the distribution for performance, and how they work with you (the customer) to get the best price/performance possible.

First Classification - Computer System Vendors

The first classification is based on the company based on all computer systems and support. You can divide companies into the usual Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 vendors that you read about in the literature. These breakdowns are usually based on revenue from computer systems and their surrounding services (e.g. support, etc.). However, remember that we're talking about the overall size of the company and sales on all computers, not just clusters. I call these the "conventional" Tiers.

Second Classification - Cluster System Vendors

You can do the same basic classification as we did before, but base the tiers on cluster sales. That is, you can break vendors into Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier3, etc. vendors based only on clusters sales. The ranking based on clusters will definitely be different than the first ranking. I call these the "cluster" Tiers.

Third Classification - True Cluster Vendors

The third classification is a bit different than the previous two classifications, and in many ways becomes a subjective ranking. But, since I'm on my soapbox here, let me give you me interpretation of true cluster vendors.

There are many vendors who are quite capable of assembling computers and connecting them with networks. They may even put a standard cluster distribution on them. I call these vendors, the "rack-n-stack" vendors. They really don't know much about clusters but just ship hardware. Unfortunately, you can expect little support from these kinds of vendors. If you get into trouble that involves more than, "how do I power off nodes?" then you will be out of luck. In some cases, they won't even be able to answer questions about the cluster management system they installed!

The second kind of true cluster vendor can assemble clusters correctly, put on a cluster distribution with a cluster management system, and even provide some basic support. They can help you if you have a node go down or if you have to put a node back into production, or if you have some basic error. I call these vendors "basic cluster" vendors. They may have a decent idea of how to create a cluster, but if you get into trouble with your applications, they will never be able to help you. Also, they have little or no idea about how to architecture a cluster for your application(s) and how to tune performance.

The third group of true cluster vendors really understand how to assemble a cluster based on your requirements and your code. They can tune your cluster for performance for your code(s) and can help you if you have a problem with your codes. Let me give you an example.

I know of one case where a major "conventional" Tier 1 vendor and a "conventional" Tier 4 vendor, who was also a Tier 1 "true cluster vendor" used identical hardware and installed the same distribution of Linux, but the conventional Tier 4 vendor tuned their system and the Tier 1 did not. The conventional Tier 4 vendor's cluster ran 20% faster using the same compilers, compiler options, and MPI! Remember this is using the same hardware and software. The Tier 4 vendor understood how to integrate the cluster and tune for performance. I call these vendors "cluster architects" and unfortunately, there are very few of them.

New Approach - Team Cluster!!!!

People usually want a single vendor to provide everything - hardware, software, services, support, warranty, etc. This is often referred to as the "One Throat to Choke" approach. Since I'm in a Xen-like mood let me ask, why? Why do you have to have one company do everything for you?

Looking at the general commodity computer market you will see that there are companies who are very, very good at hardware. These companies are very good at making hardware that works well and is very low cost. Many of them also manage to make money in the process. However, they are not the best when it comes to software and they are definitely not the best when it comes to understanding how to architect, tune, and integrate clusters.

Then we have small companies that I call "cluster architects" as I mentioned before. They are usually behind the curve on hardware because of costs and volume, but they know clusters very well, including cluster software.

Why can't you buy hardware from the hardware vendor and cluster software and services from a true cluster company? Basically you build your own "team" - a hardware vendor, a cluster software and integrator, and yourself. While this isn't the "one throat to choke" approach that virtually all IT departments have become fixated upon, it does have some compelling arguments.

First, this team approach gives you the best performance from the various aspects of a cluster. You get the best hardware from a company that truly understands hardware. You get the best cluster software and integration from a vendor who knows clusters. The hardware vendor doesn't have to worry about software, which many of them find to be the bane of their existence. The cluster vendor doesn't have to worry about hardware which requires a great deal of time, effort, capital, and usually has low margins.

Also, this approach allows you to select hardware from vendors who are not thought of as cluster companies. If you are bound by the "one throat to choke" mentality you have to pick a single vendor for cluster hardware, software, and services. This limits your selection. However, what if you could chose a hardware company that is not a cluster vendor? This gives you a wider range of companies to choose from - this gives you more flexibility and possibly better price/performance. What if you could chose a cluster software/integrator that truly understands clusters? This company gives you a wide range of cluster software to choose from (as opposed to the "one throat to choke" who only have one set of cluster software). This gives you more flexibility and perhaps better price/performance as well.

The approach of "decoupling" hardware and software gives you opportunities that the "one throat to choke" concept does not give you. For example, you can standardize on a single set of cluster software and then select the hardware vendor that gives the best price/performance, the latest hardware, or some specialized hardware adapted for your application.

Just like real-life, there are downsides to this approach. Because you don't have "one throat to choke" you have to bear more of the responsibility for the cluster. You can't just call a single phone number and expect "cluster batman" to fix whatever problem you have. You know need to make sure the hardware vendor and the software vendor work together (I would make sure they can do this prior to buying anything) and that the habit of blaming each other does not become a common occurrence. Also, this idea depends upon the cluster software and the hardware vendor adhering to standards. This allows the hardware piece and the software piece to be interchangeable.

I can promise you that any IT manager who is reading this is silently saying that they would never consider this idea and that I'm nuts. Why would they trade ease of support for more headache on their part? Well, the answer is simple - you can get much better price/performance with this approach. As I mentioned before you can get the best price/performance in hardware and the best price/performance in software. If the integration is done well, then you should have the best price/performance system.

This concept is a developing one that customers are starting to embrace. It bears further thought, but I'm personally betting this is the wave of the future.

Recommendations (but don't sue me)

You want to have a reasonable number of candidate vendors without having too many. How many is enough? That's really up to you. But, there are some easy recommendations I can give you (at least "easy" in my opinion). Then I will give you my idea of how many vendors I would pick and which kind of vendors I would pick.

The easiest recommendation I can make is to stay away from the "rack-n-stack" vendors unless you have some good in-house cluster staff. If you are trying the "cluster team" approach, then the 'rack-n-stack" companies could make sense. However, I would recommend looking for some "basic cluster" vendors since they are plentiful in numbers. Most important, however, is to spend as much time as you can looking for the "cluster architects." These are the companies you will want to buy from.

In general, I would select around 4-5 vendors in total. I might select at least one conventional Tier 1 vendor, one or two "basic cluster vendors" which are not conventional Tier 1 vendors, and at least one, but hopefully two or more "cluster architect" companies. Don't select too many companies since this will make your life difficult when doing an evaluation, but also don't select too few, since you will have a difficult time comparing the vendors and their offerings

I have one more comment about selecting vendors. Don't select a vendor based on just their size and sales. Companies, or rather IT managers, have a tendency to select companies based on their size and sales (the bigger the better). People seem to have some comfort in large companies because they believe they will always be around. While they have a valid point, remember that clusters, and beowulf's in particular, are made from commodity components, that can be easily found from other companies. Also remember that Enron and Worldcom were huge corporations with large sales and supposedly large cash reserves just before they went bankrupt.

I have also seen a disturbing trend in cluster sales recently. There are many people who are shopping for cluster vendors, and making decisions, based purely on one number. This number is $/GFlop (price per billion floating-point operations per second). The GFlop number is either the peak performance or the Top500 performance (I've seen requests for both numbers). What these people are looking for is the cheapest hardware possible. By focusing on this single number, they have immediately eliminated all discussion about the ability of a vendor to support their hardware, fix problems, interconnect options, software tuning, cluster management, etc. Also, they have now eliminated any discussion of the performance of real codes. It's really sad to hear people ask for these numbers knowing that they are likely to end up with a cluster that doesn't work as advertised, and doesn't deliver the best performance on user codes.

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