The picoCluster

February 6th, 2006

(Click on image for larger version)

Another cluster?  Yes, I couldn't get enough after building the Humidor Cluster in 2004.  That project was originally supposed to be much smaller than it turned out.  I wanted to use Compact Flash-based disk storage but the costs involved at the time were far too great.


So here is the picoCluster.  Pico is the new nano.  I caved into current fashion.  My goal going into the project was to build a four-node cluster that fit into the space of a six-inch cube.  I felt that this goal was unrealistic enough to be worthwhile trying.  Nothing is any fun if it is easy.



The first thing I did was build the cube.  It is made of 3/8" plywood and is a perfect 7-inch cube.  That makes the inside space a 6 1/4" cube.  Close enough.  I have been putting my name on my projects lately because I like the ego stroking self-indulgence.  In this case, it indicates the front of the enclosure as well.



To illustrate, this is the back...I think.  The box corners are chromed steel items that were scavenged from an antique box.  The paint is gloss pewter grey.



Opening up the box.  Here I have the top sitting loosely cocked to illustrate how the two sections join.  There is no physical attachment between the two.  The top section does nothing except cover and protect the fragile components inside.  I like to call it my cluster cozy.  During construction I would fit the top on frequently just to ensure that I was keeping to my size constraints.



The lower box corners are fake.  I have screw heads attached to the holes to help with the illusion.  Small blocks of wood are attached to the four corners to help align the top to the base.



Here is the backside shot.  Bumblebee Yellow if you need to know.



The box interior is painted gloss white.



Here is a picture of the base's bottom.  The four nuts are the attachment points for the cluster's support rods.



This is a Linksys 5-port switch with its cover removed.  It is 12V, which is important so that it can be powered from the cluster's power supply.  The switch is attached to the base with threaded brass standoffs.



Continuing with my lasagna analogy from the Humidor Cluster, this is the second course (after the switch).  I am using the same construction technique as the humidor, which consists of four metal rods, placed through the board's attachment holes.  The components are vertically separated by nylon spacers and nuts.



This is an Advantech PCM-5823 3.5" SBC shown belly up.  Displayed are the Crucial 256MB SODIMM and the Crucial 2GB Compact Flash module.  The PCM-5823 is distinguished by its dual Ethernet setup. 300MHz Geode GX-1 processors power all the 5820-series boards that I used for this project.



Fanless CPU....Compact Flash hard drive....Yes boys and girls, this cluster has no moving parts and makes absolutely no noise what-so-ever.  I placed the switch under the board so that the switches six LEDs can be easily seen from the front.



Third course.  This is a PCM-5820 that has the optional full-coverage gold-anodized heatsink installed.



Fourth course.  This one is a PCM-5825.  It has a different heatsink setup and has three more serial ports than the PCM-5820.  Other than that it is identical to the 5820.



This is the cluster's power supply.  It was taken from a 5.25" external enclosure.  Since it was designed to power a CDROM drive, it has a single four-pin Molex connector.  It is rated at 50W.  It is shown here mounted to the underside of the cluster's top plate.



The top plate is ready to be installed as the fifth and final course.  In case you are keeping score, the project turned into a three-node instead of four-node cluster.  A fourth board would have fit but it would have been difficult power wise and not so clean looking.



The wiring harness.  I modified an exiting fan adapter cable by adding two low-profile Molex connectors.  The fan connector was replaced with a barrel connector that is used for the switch. 



Here we go.  The top plate is installed and the power cord is plugged in.  There is no DC-DC adapter nonsense going on here.  That cable plugs straight into the wall.  Next to the plug is a rocker switch that turns the cluster off and on.



This picture shows a few of the 21 green and yellow LEDs that light up so well when the little beast is at full boil.  So many LEDs in such a small space makes this project worth the effort just for the entertainment factor.


So what does the picoCluster do?  Primarily, it is a toy. It is also a display for my Advantech 3.5" SBC collection.  It is a working high-performance cluster.  I am running MPICH clustering software installed on top of Windows NT4.0.  The nodes all have Internet Explorer 6.0 installed and they all are blindingly fast both in operation and boot up time.

One of the features of this cluster is the ability to swap out hard drives (CF cards) in a matter of seconds.  I have several flavors of Linux and other software including IPCOP and VPN stuff installed onto other CF cards.  I also get to play with things such as booting across a network, even if it is only two inches away.

I would like to thank Crucial for sponsoring this project.  Thanks Sam!