Group Shot

Why a GameCube cluster?

       Back in 2003 or so I was very involved with the GameCube homebrew scene, working on libogc (which has now matured to include Wii support), and desperately looking for developers who would be interested in working on serious GameCube projects. At this point the Xbox homebrew scene was still very very popular, and it seemed like nobody wanted to work on any other consoles. Of course, this was not without a reason, the Xbox was basically a standard x86 PC, complete with HDD, DVD-ROM, USB, and Ethernet. Developing software for the Xbox was much much easier, and people gravitated to it. Developing software for the GameCube on the other hand was not exactly a walk in the park. Even when you got the cross-compiler and build environment setup, there was still the issue of actually running your code on the console. Back then we were still stuck primarily using the PSO exploit, which was not for the impatient.

At the same time, I was very active with BOINC, running at least one dedicated node at all times on SETI@Home. I had been considering for quite some time putting together a cluster that could run the BOINC client 24/7 without tying up my other machines. But the problems with a cluster were pretty intimidating in the days before Atom and the new breed of netbook hardware; the cost, power consumption, and physical size requirements of even a 4 node cluster kept this idea firmly in the realm of unrealistic dreams.

Until February 2004, that is. This is when the GameCube Linux Project released their first fully functional Linux builds. They had the kernel booting a bit earlier than this, but in February they had gotten networking and initrd support working, which made the GameCube a fully functional Linux machine.

While not exactly a super computer, the Nintendo GameCube could hold it's own at the time. With a 486 MHz PowerPC processor (based on an extended G3 instruction set), a functional (albeit unusual) DVD-ROM drive, and an optional Ethernet adapter, it was up to the task of running a basic OS and crunching some numbers. The biggest limitation is RAM, as the GameCube only has 24 MB of main RAM, though the kernel was later able to use the console's VRAM for an additional 16 MB, bringing total RAM to a still-tight (but not impossible) 40 MB.

Cost for the GameCube and the LAN Adapter was still pretty high in 2004, but unfortunately for Nintendo those prices would start dropping pretty quickly in the coming years. But the best part of using the GC as a cluster platform was it's small size and comparatively low power consumption. Plus, they were square, so you could even stack them!

Philosophical Differences

       Like I said, by early 2004 the GameCube was able to boot a fully-functional kernel (at least for my purposes, video acceleration and audio were still being worked on) and load an initrd over NFS. The problem was, it seemed like most of the GC Linux developers were content with that much. They felt that there was no need to develop an actual Linux distribution for the GameCube, and instead believed it would best be served as a thin-client of sorts. Instead of working on a RAM-optimised local initrd to make the GC a functional machine, there primary goal was refining the video and audio drivers so the GameCube could be used to stream media.

I spoke to some of the GC Linux developers about this perceived trend, and was told that basically what I assumed was correct. The primary developers believed the GameCube would have no function as a stand-alone Linux machine, and there was no reason to develop an OS for it. I was told the project's goal (at that point in time at least, I don't want to slight any current developers) was to get the GameCube working as a Linux-based streaming media player. Perhaps this was to try and best XBMC, which was (and arguably still is) the greatest homebrew achievement of all time, as some of the GC Linux developers were fresh from the Xbox development scene. When I made a case for building a fully functional initrd that could be loaded on the local machine, making the GameCube an independent computer, I was told very simply to "Fork it." Meaning they had no interest in such a project, and if that is what I wanted to do, I had to do it myself. So, naturally, I did.

The Beast

Beast        The first thing I realized when I started working on a custom distribution of Linux for the GameCube was how annoying it got to cross-compile every single application, build it into an initrd, and see if it worked. I realized this whole process would be much easier if I just got a PowerPC machine and tested on that. For those of you who may be wondering, at this point in time virtualization was not an option like it is today. So I went to my local computer show and bought the first PowerPC machine I found, or should I say, found me. The man who sold it to me said he would take $5 for it if I promised to get it away from him right then and there. In hindsight I should have realized this was not a good sign, but this was my first PowerPC machine, and I really didn't know what I was getting into in the first place.

Digital blind dates, much like their real life counterparts, often turn out to be disappointing. The machine I ended up with was a Power Macintosh 8600/200. I probably couldn't have picked a worse machine to develop on if I tried. First off, this machine is what is known as an "Old World" Mac, which basically means that it is unnecessarily difficult to install a non-Apple operating system on it. You need to jump through all sorts of hoops just to get the kernel booting on it, and once I did, I found that this thing was, aside from having much more RAM, a worse development platform than the GameCube itself. Worst of all, this wasn't even in the same processor family as the GameCube, so there was no guarantee it would even do what I wanted it to. After spending a few days getting Debian installed on it, I finally came to terms with the fact that it had almost no use to me as a development platform, and away it went into storage. At least it was only $5.

Although, without getting too far off subject, I do have to admit that this was easily one of the best-engineered and built machines I have ever worked on. Early Apple hardware was certainly built to last, and I can see why these things were so much more expensive than the relatively puny IBM-compatible hardware of the same era. It can take 8 banks of RAM totaling up to what must have then been a mind-bending 1 GB of RAM, and even has integrated composite video input and output, which just blows my mind considering my PC at the time this was released didn't even have a sound card.

The Beauty

       Not about to let a $5 misstep derail the whole project, I went back out to the next computer show with a little more PowerPC savvy under my belt. It didn't hurt that I had made friends with a Mac-fanatic since the 8600/200 debacle and had him on speed-dial so I could describe the machines I was looking at as if I was defusing a bomb (which these things made about as much sense to me as anyway).

This time I spent $40, and came back with the rather sexy G3 you see above. The G3 was considerably more up to the task of operating as both my development and testing platform, being a "New World" machine and much much more powerful than the 8600/200. In fact, this machine was even able to run OS 10.4, which was a nice distraction while working out the rest of the details. Using the G3 I was able to develop the GameCube's Linux distribution much more rapidly than I would have using cross-compilation and native hardware.

The Plan

       The idea once I got the GameCube's booting the kernel and workable initrd was very simple. The G3 would serve as the main control node in the new cluster. It's primary function was to serve DHCP, DNS, and NFS to the client nodes. NTP was also used to keep the machines time-stamps in sync, though this strictly wasn't necessary. The server would hand out the DHCP leases to new nodes, cache the common DNS requests (which would all be BOINC related), and share out the project directory over NFS. The accepted method for running BOINC on a cluster at this time was to simply have all the nodes run a copy of the binary from an NFS export, as the BOINC client had no inherent clustering or multi-processor support (I would have to assume this has changed by now, but have not looked into it recently). Clients ran a password-less SSH so that commands could easily be pushed out to all of the nodes.


So why didn't it work?

       Ah, hold on. Perhaps I miscommunicated a bit here. Just because I consider this a "Fail", doesn't necessarily mean it was an actual failure. Does that make any sense?

What I mean is, technically this idea is completely sound. There is no problem with the methodology used, the fact of the matter is that the end result just wasn't worth the aggravation. Specifically in the case of the GameCube cluster, it took me so long to collect the appropriate development system, GameCubes, and the relatively rare LAN Adapters required to get them on the network, that the idea of a GameCube cluster simply didn't make sense anymore.

For a very rough idea of how the GameCube cluster would have performed had I continued on past the point of foolishness, we can use the kernel's built in estimation of processing power, BogoMips. For the record, BogoMips are not actually intended to compare different processors in real-world situations, but in this case where we already know the cluster will be miserably inferior to modern hardware, it is safe to take some liberties and use BogoMips to determine just how miserable a failure it would be. The GameCube clocks in at 968.70 BogoMips, which multiplied by 4 nodes gives us 3874.8. Of course you will lose a bit of processing power along the line when working with a cluster, but let's say for the sake of argument that the cluster had an estimated power of 3800 BogoMips.

An already-antiquated single-core Pentium 4 processor clocks in at about 4800 BogoMips, so in terms of raw performance there isn't much of an incentive. You might think that power consumption would still be an advantage, but consider that each GameCube draws 21 watts when running, which brings the node's power consumption to 84 watts alone (this doesn't even take into account the master). On the other hand, an Atom 230 board clocks in at 3200 BogoMips, and can easily run in the mid-20 watt range depending on any additional hardware.

On second thought...

       I have to be honest, I had more or less written this whole thing off as a colossal waste of time and money quite time time ago. Going through the proposed steps and reviewing how close I had come only reinforced this fact, this thing really would never have performed well enough to justify it's complication. But then, perhaps that isn't the point in the first place? What happened to doing things just to say you did them?

On that note, I am currently considering powering on the cluster for real sometime in the near future. I will update this page when and if this happens with some more information and real-world performance numbers.