Faster than a PC? Perhaps. More stylish, certainly. Easier to work with, absolutely. But cheaper?

Macs are rarely, if ever, touted as the least-expensive computing option, particularly in comparison to the ultimate cost-cutter, Linux. But the creators of the world's fastest Mac supercomputer insist they opted for Apple because Macs provided significant price and performance benefits over hardware running Linux or any other Unix-based solution.

Faculty and students at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University's Terascale Computing Facility connected 1,100 2-GHz dual-processor Power Mac G5 machines to build their supercomputer, which they hope will soon be the first Mac-based system ranked among the world's fastest computers.

Mac supercomputer clusters are mostly uncharted territory, so the Virginia Tech team had to blaze some paths, converting cluster software usually used on Linux machines and figuring out ways to adapt existing hardware to their Mac monster computer.

"It's a total turnaround," said Peter Dowling, a Manhattan-based Mac networking consultant. "Usually you assume that you'll pay a premium for Apple machines, but they will be easier to set up and work with. But in this case it seems that the Macs were cheap, but challenging."

Then again, supercomputer creation is never a simple process, according to Jason Lockhart, associate director of Virginia Tech's Terascale Computing Facility.

"There is nothing easy about building a supercomputer, especially one that is home-built from commodity parts," said Lockhart. "It's a laborious and painful process that requires a great deal of stamina and a tremendous amount of patience."

The Virginia Tech team admits they probably would have had an easier time building a Linux cluster, due to the wide availability of Linux-based cluster software solutions.

The team had built several Linux clusters before they started work on the Mac cluster. Dr. Srinidhi Varadarajan, director of the Virginia Tech Terascale Computing Facility, has also developed software to make Linux clusters run more reliably and efficiently.

Cluster supercomputers link multiple single computers into one hopefully cohesive whole, a process that requires some tinkering and specialized software to ensure that the machines work together efficiently. The vast majority of the available cluster software is not intended for use on Macs since there are few, if any, Mac supercomputer clusters.

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