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furby beowulf supercomputer

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Cluster Computing

massively parallel processing design and implementation with commodity products

furbeowulf, the logo

For many years, consumer spending on high-tech toys has been growing at a rate far faster than the relatively stagnant supercomputing industry. By the second half of the 1990s, the sales of even a single moderately successful high-tech consumer toy such as the Tamagotchi, Playstation2, GameBoy, or Furby greatly outstripped the revenues of all supercomputing products combined.

The competition for the consumer high-tech toy market is fierce and well-funded, and the impetus to provide ever more powerful products to maintain or increase market share has resulted in the computing power found in children's toys making proportionately far greater strides than have been seen in even the most aggressive conventional supercomputing technologies.

FURBEOWULF highly parallel processing system

highly parallel processing system

Since the introduction of the original Cray-1 in 1976 with a computing power of 133 million floating-point operations per second (megaflops), a quarter-century of R&D efforts have only pushed the performance envelope of Cray's current top-of-the-line SV1ex-based systems to to the 64,000 megaflop range. Improving performance by a factor of nearly five hundred may well be no small accomplishment, but in the same twenty-five years, the consumer toy market has gone from sub-microflop offerings like the Pet Rock, early model GI Joe action figures, and unipixel displays such as "mood rings" to the current crop of "virtual pets," handheld GameBoy play systems, and, the subject of our research, the Furby.

The computing power of a single Furby still lags behind even Cray Computing's mid-range 2 gigaflop supercomputers, but it is, nonetheless, infinitely more powerful than a Pet Rock and carries a somewhat lower cost-of-ownership than the Cray, particularly when you take into account the price and availability of spares and replacements.

When Linux was first ported to the Furby platform, it suffered from significant stability and performance problems, which gave the Furby an unfortunate reputation as being unsuitable for enterprise-level computing. The conversion of the IRS and NASA computing facilities to Furby-based platforms towards the end of 1999 was seen by many as premature and may have contributed to the problems experienced by those departments during 2000 which did nothing to improve the Furby's image in corporate America. To be fair, however, it should be noted that Furbys placed in IRS telephone support positions received no more complaints than their human counterparts and studies showed that they provided a comparable level of accuracy in their answers to taxpayer questions.

Subsequent releases of Furby Linux have largely addressed these problems and, though the flexibility of the user interface and the support for third-party add-on hardware remains limited, this is primarily a handicap for standard desktop applications like spreadsheets or graphic design, and does not pose a problem for the back-end CPU-intensive parallel processing applications typical of cluster computing.

AiboStation 2x
Inexpensive Aibo-clone running Wagtek's MojoBARC processor

One unfortunate design flaw that did pose a problem is that the Furby's networking interface operates exclusively in broadcast mode with no provision for collision detection and arbitration, routing, or other control features necessary to network more than two or three Furbys together effectively.

This required the use of a "watchdog" processor to manage both process allocation and network traffic; an inexpensive Aibo-clone based on Wagtek's powerful MojoBARC CPU was selected for this purpose.

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Other Funny Furby Sites:
Furby Hooker
Furby Autopsy

Also in this issue of the Unnatural Enquirer:
Santa Claus,
fugitive from justice

Decorate your
Evil Lair on a Budget

the Visible Barbie Project
the story of
Johnny Highwaycone
Isn't it time you upgraded to
locate optical interface on unit base
locate the optical interface connector on the base of the unit

Furby Linux supports several networking options; in the case of Furbeowulf clusters with fewer than 4095 active nodes and moderate-to-high I/O demands, Furbe Channel provides the highest overall performance. The external optical interface on the top of the unit is the quickest and simplest to set up for a small wireless cluster, but it's also more vulnerable to optical interference and noise, difficult to manage physically with more than a few units, and is only capable of half-duplex operation.

To connect the Furby to the network using fibre optic cables, first locate the duplex optical interface at the bottom of the unit; this will normally be covered by a rubber or plastic dust-proof cap.

insert duplex fibre connector
insert duplex Furby channel connector

Insert the duplex connector until you detect a postive 'click,' letting you know that it is firmly seated. Note that the standard Furbe channel connectors are keyed to prevent you from reversing the transmit and receive connections.

all hooked up
all hooked up

Surprisingly, the Furby CPU can be overclocked significantly, with a corresponding boost in computing power. The biggest problem, however, is that of cooling, because for some reason the units are covered with an insulating fuzzy layer that encourages the buildup of heat rather than enhancing cooling like a standard aluminum heat sink would have. This particularly ill-considered and impractical design decision was probably something that the marketing department came up with, perhaps because of something related to the name "Furby."

Additional fans can, of course, be added to the enclosures to improve cooling, but in testing, these tended to clog with bits of hair and stuff, especially when operated at high speeds. Eventually, the Furbys were reclocked back to their normal rates to avoid problems caused by overheating.

hot-swappable Furby

An ordinary hot-swap tray provides enough power to eliminate the need for batteries, increasing convenience and reliability while simultaneously reducing operating cost. This doesn't address the Furby's need to be "fed" regularly which can be a nuisance, especially for a large array, but sometimes you just have to put up with these things. Most of the time, people are pretty understanding when you explain that you can't get them the final results of your solar wind simulation until after you've had your finger nibbled upon for a while.

...or at least they won't stand in your way as you're heading out of the room, which is what matters.

Oooh-tay u-naigh mahh-weah aye-gwam!
Furbys in place, ready to solve the mysteries of the universe!

And the future of Furby-based supercomputing? With a working supercomputing array, complete with artificial intelligence and speech recognition and synthesis capabilities, why not ask it?

"Oooh-tay u-naigh mahh-weah aye-gwam!" it said, in chorus. I'm not quite sure what that means, but isn't exploring the unknown what science is all about?

Next week's Mad Science Fair Project:
FURBY @ home   distributed computing


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For information about real Cluster Computing and the Beowulf Project, see

Furby® is a registered trademark of Tiger Electronics, Ltd., which is not affiliated with or responsible for any of the contents of this webpage.

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