The dictionary definition of the prefix meta- is: "Beyond; More comprehensive; More highly developed." So a meta-computer goes beyond the boundaries of a traditional computer as we are accustomed to thinking of it. Essentially, a metacomputer is a collection of many individual computers, connected by a network (the Internet for example), which can cooperate on solving a problem. In general, this allows the problem to be solved much more quickly than would be possible using a single computer.

Supercomputers are much faster than a single desktop computer too, but they usually cost millions of dollars, and everyone has to compete for time to work on their problem. Recently, personal computers have become very fast and relatively inexpensive. At the same time, the idea of free software (like the Linux operating system) has started to catch on. These developments have made it feasible to build a specialized metacomputer with as much computing power as a 5 year old supercomputer, but for only about 1% of the cost!

The problem that I am working on will require that I run literally millions of computer models of pulsating white dwarf stars over the several-year duration of my research project. To make these calculations practical, I have configured a metacomputer using 32 Intel Pentium-II systems running under a customized version of the Linux operating system.

Thanks to another piece of free software called PVM (for Parallel Virtual Machine), I can use one fully-equipped personal computer to control the entire system. This central computer is responsible for distributing work to each of the 32 processors, and collecting the results. There is a small amount of work required just to keep track of everything, so the metacomputer actually runs as fast as 30 (rather than 32) single Pentium-II systems. Not bad!

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