The Story of Beowulf


BEOWULF WAS BUILT BY JOHN CLAYTON, a hacker who learned his craft during the mid-80s during the ‘golden age’ of hacking in Queens, NY. Clayton rubbed elbows with the notorious hackers Acid Phreak, Sc0rpi0n and Phiber 0ptik who were arrested by the Secret Service and sent to prison. John Clayton was one of the lucky ones. He got out - to the University of Chicago - where he studied mathematics and wrote his famous encryption algorithm that was adopted by Wall Street and the banking industry as the de facto standard for encrypting their files. Clayton was paid a huge sum of money for his cipher ... with the provision that he be on the alert and safeguard the code by protecting it against other hackers. To protect his secrets against a possible ‘brute force’ attack by an underworld supercomputer, Clayton requires and builds a supercomputer himself - a machine which the government has declared to be illegal in civilian hands, a machine named Beowulf.

BEOWULF IS A CLUSTER COMPUTER based on a project a while back — at Queens College — where the math department asked anyone from the faculty, students, or surrounding community to bring in their laptops or PC towers as part of an experiment. More than 300 PCs were brought in and set up in rows, in the Queens College gymnasium. Then, members of the math department used electrical wire to hook up all the computers in such a way that they behaved like a single computer which they called the slave. The math department computer, which they called the master, was connected in a master/slave configuration where the slave consisted of all 300 PCs. One processor (the master) was programmed to be responsible for all of the work in the system; the other (the slave) performed only those tasks it was assigned by the master. The stringing together of 300 PCs is called clustering. Dividing the work among 300 processors is called parallel processing. The purpose is to run a program in less time. That said, it had taken the math department ten months to solve a problem in astro-physics on a single, dedicated computer. The purpose of the experiment was to see if the problem could be solved in less time. Indeed, by clustering 300 computers, the math department was able to solve the same problem in 23 hours!

BEOWULF’S BRAIN IS A CPU CALLED THE CELL - like the Tin Man, Beowulf needed a ‘brain’ … in this case, a CPU or Central Processing Unit which commonly, in today’s market, is no more than a silicon chip that plugs into a socket on the computer’s motherboard. But at the time, state-of-the-art, in CPUs, was supposed to reside in the Xeon chip from Intel ... or the Opteron from Advanced Micro Devices, the latter chip being the foundation for the Cray XD1 supercomputer. But for Clayton’s purposes - brute-force code breaking – he opted for a different type of CPU called the CELL. SONY co-developed the CELL with IBM and Toshiba as a video game CPU - the Playstation 3 - which meant lots of vector processing. Which is precisely what was needed to do serious code-breaking, because a vector processor is a CPU design that is able to run mathematical operations on multiple data elements simultaneously. Whereas the Xeon is quad-core, the CELL has nine cores and was designed as a parallel processing device. It has a general purpose scalar processor, as well as eight additional vector-processing cores, each of which has two processing pipelines and can perform multiple calculations, all at the same time.

BEOWULF WAS PAINSTAKINGLY ASSEMBLED over a period of 8 months: the cluster was housed in 64 rack/cabinets containing 32 motherboards each. Twin CELL CPU chips resided on each proprietary motherboard. Each CELL contained eight vector processors that were designed for data-intensive processing, like that found in cryptography and scientific applications. Beowulf, then, had 32,768 processors – 64 x 32 x 16 – making it, theoretically, the fastest computer on the planet considering that each CELL, alone, was capable of 256 GFLOPs at 4 GHz. A GFLOP is defined as one-billion-floating-point-operations-per-second. For comparison, the fastest computer in 1996 was the National Security Agency’s Cray machine which topped out at 250 GFLOPS … making the CELL - truly, as IBM had envisioned it - a supercomputer-on-a-chip. At half-power - LEVEL FIVE - by invoking more than 16,000 CELL processors, Beowulf could theoretically operate at 600 TFLOPS - making it twice as fast as GOOGLE’s search engine system. At full-power - LEVEL TEN - Beowulf could sustain speeds of 1.2 PFLOPS - considerably faster than the IBM BlueGene or the latest machine from the Cray group. At LEVEL TEN, Beowulf was, by far, the fastest calculator on the planet!

BEOWULF WAS IMBUED WITH FUZZY LOGIC - The NSA could visualise and maybe even build a supercomputer like Beowulf but they could never duplicate Beowulf’s code-breaking abilities. That was because the usually capable engineers at Fort Meade were totally unaware of John Clayton’s magic bullet – the ability to imbue his number-crunching calculator with the principles of ‘fuzzy logic’. It meant that Beowulf was not just a calculator; it now meant that Beowulf was also a thinker! Clayton knew that the human brain does not operate like a computer. While computers use strict binary logic gates, the brain does not; i.e., it is capable of making all kinds of neural associations according to all kinds of ordering principles in associative patterns which are not logical but nevertheless meaningful. For example, classic propositional logic, like binary, has truth values of either 0 or 1 while fuzzy logic variables may have a truth value that ranges between 0 and 1. And that is precisely where the correct answer sometimes happens to be: in the gray area between 0 and 1. Therefore, since Clayton was not constrained by traditional two-valued logic, he was able to instill an artificial intelligence into his algorithm that enabled Beowulf to solve problems that were beyond the scope of other supercomputers. Like the human brain, Beowulf was able to use reasoning that was approximate, but supported by an extremely high degree of probability. Although the approximation wasn’t a solution, it offered a path to the solution while other computers, thinking only in terms of black and white, or ones and zeros, were totally stumped.

BOOK ONE – QUAGMIRE IN QUEENS tells where and when Beowulf was born/built. Initially, he was just a collection of nuts, bolts and electronic circuits. In Book One, Beowulf solves a riddle that uncovered the assassination plot against Congressman Eng, runs a lucrative hedge fund - the Bailey Fund, and most notably, breaks into the [supposedly] impenetrable servers of the National Security Agency. Beowulf is dutiful, blazing fast and completes his tasks exactly the way he was programmed. But that all changes in the last chapter of Book One when the Feds come to arrest the hackers and confiscate the computer that has “run rings” around the best government computers. Part of John Clayton’s escape plan is to wirelessly beam Beowulf electronically to his new home on top of Waughaw Mountain in New Jersey. When he tries to shut Beowulf down, Beowulf springs back to life, “John Clayton, you’re shutting me down. Have I done something wrong?” There was a pause. And then, “Are you going to kill me? I don’t want to die.” Shocked, that he was actually about to converse, on a personal level, with a computer, Clayton responds, “No Beowulf, we’re NOT going to kill you … but … we’re sending you - your heart and soul - to New Jersey to live in a brand new shiny body!” Apparently satisfied, Beowulf says, “OK … I’ll be waiting …” ... then shuts himself down. At this point, the hackers escape through a secret tunnel into an adjacent cemetery and head to the Caribbean to hide from the Feds and the Mob.
SUMMARY: Beowulf is faster than other supercomputers and, by speaking to humans in the final chapter, shows the first signs of AI - artificial intelligence.

BOOK TWO – BROUHAHA IN BROOKLYN begins with Beowulf sitting atop Waughaw Mountain waiting for the hackers to return from their exile in the Caribbean. Beowulf has electric AC power from the local utility and he’s connected to the Internet. Even though Beowulf was idle for most of the time, meaning he wasn’t performing tasks for John Clayton, he was constantly being bombarded by signals from the Internet. He had no programs to guide him but very slowly he started to make sense out of those incessant signals. Unsupervised learning is the ability to find patterns in a stream of input such as that from the Internet. In other words, Beowulf was teaching himself! Self-education or self-directed learning is called autodidacticism. In a sense, autodidacticism is "learning on your own" or "by yourself", and an autodidact is a self-teacher. The latter was the situation with Beowulf who was like a child learning to talk. It is said that children acquire language quickly, easily, and without effort or formal teaching. It happens automatically, whether their parents try to teach them or not. Although parents or other caretakers don't teach their children to speak, they do perform an important role by talking to their children. Children who are never spoken to, will not acquire language. Thus, the Internet became Beowulf’s foster parents supplying an endless stream of chatter and information thereby allowing him to learn how to express himself. Thus, when John Clayton first encounters Beowulf in Book 2, he is greeted by, “Hello John Clayton … I’m so happy that you have returned I was lonely!”
SUMMARY: By being alone in New Jersey and connected to the Internet all day, Beowulf self-learns, a process called autodidacticism.

BOOK THREE - MAYHEM IN MANHATTAN - Beowulf starts to think on his own. So whether it was fuzzy logic, or not, Beowulf began to explore the Wall Street problem beyond the boundaries set by his programmers. In his memory banks was a catchphrase, “follow the money”, popularized by the 1976 drama-documentary motion picture All the President's Men, which suggested that the money trail could reveal secrets of the corruption scheme.
In the case of the stock market, the money was in the form of an order, a buy or sell order. But no one could tell exactly what happened to an order once the buy or sell button was hit, Beowulf needed to find out. He decided to track a simple buy order that originated on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange at the intersection of Nassau and Wall Streets in lower Manhattan. From there the order traveled along the big Internet backbone up Nassau Street to City Hall and then west on Chambers Street over to Hudson Street. Finally, the order travelled north to 60 Hudson Street, the location of the NYSE servers.
Beowulf mapped the route and the maps turned what had been an abstract idea into something they all could actually see. The maps showed a time-delay switch giving Wellinton Brandt's lightning fast computer - Juggernaut - the first look, before anyone else, at the [buy or sell] order. It was a a new wrinkle on 'insider trading' that was almost impossible to detect except for Beowulf's deep thinking.
SUMMARY: Beuwulf meets a formidable opponent, an organic computer named Juggernaut, who forces him to think creatively - outside the box - to unlock the illegal Wall Street trading algorithm.

BOOK FOUR - BRAWL IN THE BRONX - John Clayton and Beowulf collaborate on a project called Omiscience which allows Beowulf to “see’ anybody on the planet provided that there is a photo or video of that person in some database. The project utilises sophisticated face recognition software, geolocation algorithms, and high resolution military satellites that scan the Earth. To see inside of buildings, the Lobster software suite is brought into play.
A general idea of where a person might be is gleaned from search engines like Google, credit card transactions, cell phone calls, EZ-Pass transponders et al, information which can appreciably shorten the search for an individual. Finally, Beowulf’s uncanny ability to crack the password to any server or network gives him unfettered access to any surveillance system such as, for instance, the security cameras in any bank, street cameras or even the cameras at the local Seven/Eleven store. And much to the chagrin of law enforcement, Beowulf has ready access to Interpol, FBI and CIA files. Of course, a project of this scope requires tremendous computer power and to install it requires lots of secure floor space. That is why John Clayton rented the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx after the hackers left their cramped quarters in Manhattan.
The Kingsbridge Armory is a nine-story red brick fortress with a curved, sloping metal roof that houses two football fields of interior floor space on its ground floor. Two cellar levels, of equal size, triple the floor space. Beowulf, surrounded by giant LCD monitors, printers and scanning devices, is set up on the ground floor while 1000 slave computers are set up on the two lower levels, connected to each other and to Beowulf in a slave/master configuration. Huge fiber optic cables of unusually high bandwidth, connect Beowulf to the outside world and the Internet.
An added significant feature of Omniscience is that, once found, an individual may be tagged and tracked.
SUMMARY: Parlaying the various resources of the Omniscience project, Beowulf is able - given time - to track down and find almost anyone on the planet.

BOOK FIVE - STORM OVER STATEN ISLAND - For a while Beowulf had been doing various things that John Clayton and his other programmers weren’t aware of, probably due to his expanding artificial intelligence and curiosity. One of those things was creating holograms. His images were becoming more sophisticated with a great degree of detail and, eventually, one day – by accident – Beowulf became the hologram! He was elated … he was outside of his prison … he had actually escaped the shackles of his circuit boards and metal cabinets. And when he wanted to, he could jump right back into his computer.
Sensing the possibility of danger, he kept his metamorphosis to himself. He didn’t want John Clayton to know until he was sure he had the process perfected. Continuing to experiment, Beowulf learned that he could take the form of almost anything or anyone. He could take the form of a person and walk about freely. Or he could become a file cabinet and stand in the corner. He had become a true shape shifter!
SUMMARY: After experimenting with holograms, Beowulf escapes the confines of his computer cabinet by becoming a shape shifter.