X-ISS Sets Up Diskless Windows HPC Cluster for Secure Military Environment

A Department of Defense site needed a powerful Microsoft Windows HPC cluster to run mission critical simulation applications. At 196 nodes, the cluster was relatively large, and due to security constraints, it had to be diskless.

In a diskless cluster, a central storage area network is typically loaded with a small number of physical hard drives storing files that serve as virtual hard drives to boot the compute nodes. Diskless Linux HPC systems were already relatively common at the time, but a diskless Windows HPC deployment was not.

The DoD site chose Dell to deliver this system, and since X-ISS had already been a long-time HPC-delivery partner, Dell called on X-ISS to assist with the job.

Proud of the platform-neutral reputation built over the past 15 years, X-ISS quickly dispatched a Senior Windows Analyst to the Dell integration facility to assist with building the cluster from the ground up. Specifically, X-ISS was tasked with customizing and installing the Windows cluster management system and testing the cluster.

“Starting with basic system architecture, we had to figure out how to make this work,” said Deepak Khosla. “Diskless booting with Windows is complex. It requires detailed planning to ensure all hardware is configured and set up to meet specific requirements.”

Making Diskless Windows Work

From a practical and financial perspective, diskless clusters make a lot of sense for any secure facility, Deepak Khosla explained. Organizations handling classified information deal with stringent security protocols for their computer networks. Among these is the mandated periodic DoD-grade wiping or outright destruction of disk drives containing sensitive data. For the military customer, this would have meant time-consuming and expensive cleansing – or destruction – of the 392 drives required for a standard 196-node system.

To customize the diskless Windows cluster, X-ISS interfaced extensively with Dell, Microsoft and the client.

After several conversations with Microsoft, X-ISS concluded that differencing disk technology would be key to a diskless system which met the military base’s requirement for system speed while also minimizing the number of hard drives. The differencing disks would enable the client to minimize the physical drive count and run and modify the simulation numerous times without ever changing the master boot image. Each change, or simulation modification, is saved to a differencing disk on a virtual drive.

Rather than set up hundreds of virtual drives, each taking up 15 gigabytes of space, the team created an equivalent number of differencing disks against a single 15GB virtual drive. The savings in disk space was enormous, and the system speed was not impaired.

Download this case study: DisklessWindows.CaseStudy2