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Orbital Sciences 'Take Off' with Linux Clusters

And provide significant performance improvements and cost savings

Since its beginning in 1982, Orbital Sciences has become a pioneer in developing smaller rockets and satellite systems for such diverse purposes as intercepting hostile missiles launched against the U.S. or launching satellites for better cellular phone reception. With a range of space and satellite systems, plus the added responsibility of supporting virtually all of the country's major missile defense programs, Orbital relies on massive amounts of computing power to continually optimize and simulate launch vehicles for reliability and accuracy.

Orbital's Challenge: Fast and Reliable CFD

Orbital, like many organizations in the aerospace industry, depends on computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to predict how rockets and satellites will perform in various environments. CFD works by turning the region of flow into discrete volumes, generally cube-like cells. The governing fluid equations are then used to set up a large matrix, which can be solved using a high-performance computer system. Orbital relies on CFD software from Fluent Inc. to simulate many aspects of the motion of fluid within or around Orbital's launch vehicles.

Orbital's existing computer system was continually bogged down and unable to produce fast, accurate simulations. As a result, there was a significant slowdown when arriving at solutions for CFD problems over 1 million cells. Orbital engineers were limited in the number and variety of CFD problems they could process. To help meet deadlines, Orbital often had to outsource smaller simulation problems, which could cost up to $50,000 per job and $300,000 annually.

"In the case where a larger problem was deemed mission-critical, there invariably was a need to justify the cost of outsourcing smaller problems that had to be completed, including projected payback on the outsourced engineering work," said Richard Straka, vice president and chief engineer of Orbital's Launch Systems Group (LSG). "Ultimately these justification efforts pulled engineering talent from its core competencies to convince management to spend the money necessary to support the outsourced CFD."

Investigating Linux Clusters

The inefficiencies and frustration caused by its existing system led Orbital to investigate new computing architectures. Orbital wanted to migrate to a Linux cluster because of the industry-wide reputation that clusters provided optimal performance for CFD applications.

"We wanted a system that scaled linearly with additional CPUs and could grow with us as computational demands increased. Linux clusters provided us with that capability," said Straka.

Orbital engineers were experienced in using UNIX and had dabbled in the Linux operating system for years, so they were well aware of the advantages Linux offered. Although Orbital hadn't deployed Linux on a large scale yet, they were drawn to its cost benefits and flexibility.

"Orbital is steeped in SunOS and UNIX for engineering and CAD purposes, but when it came time to invest in a compute cluster for CFD, it was Linux that even made the conversation realistic because of its cost and hardware independence," said Mike Turner, IS director of Infrastructure for Orbital Sciences.

The Fluent Factor

Since Fluent is such a major component of Orbital's design process, it was important that the cluster vendor they chose could meet the following criteria:
  1. Understand the CFD and aerospace industry
  2. Experience with Fluent Inc. software
  3. Experience deploying Fluent-based clusters
  4. Compelling price/performance ratio
Orbital was drawn to Linux Networx after learning from Fluent about a Linux Networx system that was successfully installed at Fluent's facility to run CFD jobs for its customers at their Remote Simulation Facility (RSF). Orbital was also impressed with the knowledge base of Linux Networx engineers gleaned from previous CFD installations at other customer sites such as The Boeing Company. However, the deciding factor for Orbital to investigate a Linux Networx cluster solution was the partnership that had formed between Linux Networx and Fluent to provide an optimized Evolocity cluster system preloaded with Fluent software for the CFD market.

"We want our customers to have a successful, seamless experience when deploying a new compute environment and the Evolocity CFD cluster provides this. Problems with deployment represent a barrier to expanded use of our software and incur costs to the customer," said Paul Bemis, vice president of marketing for Fluent. "The partnership between Linux Networx and Fluent provides end users with a 'sure bet' in terms of successful deployment."

To be certain the Evolocity CFD solution would meet Orbital's needs, Linux Networx ran several Fluent benchmark tests on a cluster at Linux Networx's Solution Center, an in-house testing and validating facility that allows customers to try different cluster configurations. The Solutions Center cluster ran problems with very fine granularity in decomposition, which Orbital's previous computer system was unable to handle in a timely manner. The results from the Solutions Center proved that an optimized CFD cluster could produce results much faster than the previous solution. Impressed with the results from the Solutions Center, Orbital purchased an Evolocity CFD cluster with 24 Intel Xeon processors.

"The major reason why we chose Linux Networx was because of their intimate experience with Fluent," said Vince Allen, manager of aerodynamics. "We wanted a turnkey-type system with Fluent loaded and ready to be used - which is what the Linux Networx CFD system offered."

Delivering the Cluster

Installing a cluster system can be a long, tedious task as miles of cable, hundreds of hardware components, and various software must come together to create a high-performance computer. Linux Networx removes this complexity by completely integrating the cluster at Linux Networx's staging facility prior to delivery. Once the system is completely built up, the cluster undergoes testing and validation to ensure the cluster can be delivered to the customer's site problem-free. With these procedures in place, installing the cluster at Orbital was quick and seamless.

"The racks were laid out perfectly with regard to cable placement and management. The on-site installation engineer was knowledgeable and focused," said Sam Hutton, principal systems analyst in Orbital's IS department. "All in all we experienced a very neat, quick, and professional installation."

Managing the Cluster

With a 24-processor cluster, Orbital wanted to ensure that each node was operating at maximum efficiency, but didn't want to spend time and resources having administrators monitor the cluster for optimal performance. Orbital was able to easily address this problem by installing a suite of total cluster management tools from Linux Networx. Evolocity systems include Clusterworx, a comprehensive cluster management software solution, and Icebox, a cluster management hardware appliance that fully integrates with Clusterworx to increase system uptime and track cluster performance. By installing this management suite, Orbital is able to run more jobs and simplify system administration.

"The management tools allow complete, comprehensive, and effective remote management, including environmental and process monitoring, threshold reporting, remote reboots and power downs, and remote console," said Hutton. "Clusterworx and Icebox are a very robust set of management and proactive monitoring tools."


Since implementing the cluster, Orbital is seeing significant performance improvements and cost savings. With the optimized CFD cluster, Orbital is able to complete jobs 30 times faster than their previous solution, which significantly reduces the number of problems Orbital has to outsource to third parties. Orbital engineers estimate the Linux Networx CFD cluster will more than pay for itself within the first year because of its fast results and the reduction in outsourcing needs - a savings of over $130,000 in less than one year.

"The Linux Networx CFD clusters allow us to run bigger problems than ever before and more numerous design variations on smaller cases, allowing us to refine our analytical predictions to levels that were not attainable at Orbital before," said Allen.

More important, with the power and capabilities of the cluster, Orbital engineers now have the luxury of routinely running small tasks and achieving much more focused and valid results than they were able to accomplish previously.

"The mere fact that we have the opportunity to make adjustments to a CFD calculation and resubmit it for more specific analysis makes nearly every run a candidate for more refined runs," said Straka. "The biggest benefit to us is even large tasks can run and be refined as needed, resulting in reduced risk of anomalous performance, which increases the confidence of the company in its products."

More Stories By Eric Pitcher

Eric Pitcher brings over 20 years of experience in high-performance computing to his position as vice president of product marketing at Linux Networx. Prior to joining Linux Networx, he held a variety of marketing management positions for 15 years at Cray Inc., SGI, and Cray Research. The author of 35 papers in scientific journals, Eric earned a PhD in meteorology from the University of Michigan, a master’s degree from McGill University, and a bachelor’s degree in physics from Memorial University in Canada.

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