Office Grid Computing using Virtual environments – Part 3

By , Friday 4th December 2009 11:37 pm


I work in a company where we run many batch jobs processing millions of records of data each day and I’ve been thinking recently about all the machines that sit around each and every day doing nothing for several hours. Wouldn’t it be good if we could use those machines to bolster the processing power of our systems? In this set of articles I’m going to look at the potential benefits of employing an office grid using virtualised environments.

In part 2 we looked at the jobs a server will run, and how jobs should be configured in order to achieve greatest amount of processing whilst ensuring that each job is processed without fail.

Setting up your worker – or LiMP server

The next step in the process is to set up your virtual workers. For this I’m going to use an installation of centOS using VirtualBox. I’m going to install mySQL and PHP on the server, also known as a LiMP (Linux, mySQL, PHP) Server  (I may have made that name up).

  • Install VirtualBox on your windows machine (follow link)
  • Download and install centOS (current version 5.3) within a created virtual machine

There’s no point me going to this there’s probably 1,000’s of great tutorials out there (ok, here’s one: Creating and Managing  centOS virtual machine under virtualbox). The important point to note I suppose is that I called my virtual machine GridMachine.

As far as my choices of virtualisation client and operating system go there is no big compelling reason for each choice. VirtualBox is something I use on my home machine and is supported by the three major operating systems. I chose centOS as its a good stable OS and I use it on my own web server. I am a great believer in the right tools for the job (although I’m applying ‘use the quickest and easiest for you’ mentality here), so if operating system X runs your code quicker and more efficiently use that instead :)

Importantly make sure that your VM uses DHCP, otherwise for each new virtual machine would need to be configured separately which is something we don’t want.By using DHCP we don’t need to configure network settings individually for worker machines, DHCP will hand out IPs for you. Therefore you can copy your virtual machine about the office without worrying about setting each one up (this improves scalability and reduces worker administration).

The process you should aim to achieve would be to obtain a new physical machine, install VirtualBox, and then pretty much deploy the virtual image without much else. It might be wise to setup all your workers on a different subnet so that you can at least see how many machines are running. You’ll also need to set up your machines on a long lease or unlimited lease DHCP.

How to run Jobs on the worker

This is an interesting area and there are several valid methods for processing jobs on the worker. Here I’ll just discuss the two most obvious:

  • Perpetually running script: A script, be it a shell script, or a PHP script is executed once on the worker and runs as part of an infinite loop. I’ve discounted this method as one crash of the script and potentially your workers will cease to run without some sort of intervention.
  • Cron based script execution: Every X minutes the cron daemon kicks off a call to your script to get things going. Without some checking this could lead to many many copies of your worker script running.

My decision was to go with cron which kicks off a shell script every 10 minutes.  My shell script performs the following tasks:

  1. Get a process list and grep this for ‘php’. If not found then continue.
  2. Call your job code, in my case this would be something PHP based
  3. Worker script completes its run
  4. Ready to go again on the next appropriate call

My bash script looks something like the following:

if ps ax | grep -v grep | grep php > /dev/null
    echo "Job is currently processing, exit"
    echo "Job is not running, start now"
    php yourJobProcessingScript.php

Note: the echo’s are almost completely pointless, but may help the next person who comes along to try and edit them.

That concludes the set up of the worker virtual machine, quick, simple, and easy to copy to each new piece of hardware that is received. The ‘cleverness’ of the grid system really isn’t in the visualised OS, its all to do with the code created to process jobs, the job configuration, and in making sure that the job runs when appropriate (i.e. when the host is idle).

Setting up Windows to Initialise Workers

The first task is to work out the command required to run the virtual machine from the windows command line. If you’ve installed virtualBox in the default location and you’ve named your worker GridMachine then the command required to load up your worker is:

"C:\Program Files\Sun\VirtualBox\VBoxManage.exe" startvm GridMachine

However to run the script in a ‘headless’ state we need to use:

"C:\Program Files\Sun\VirtualBox\VBoxHeadless.exe" -startvm GridMachine --vrdp=off

This will start the virtual machine without the GUI and allow it to save state gracefully. The second argument turns off RDP so it doesn’t conflict with windows RDP, or give you a message about listening on port 3389. The virtual machine name is cAsE sEnSiTiVe!

Next, we’ll need to set windows up to kick off our worker VM once the machine has been idle. To do this (on Windows XP) you’ll need to go Start -> All Programs -> Accessories -> System Tools -> Scheduled Tasks as below:

scheduled tasks

Next click on ‘Add Scheduled Task’ followed by browse to add a custom program. Navigate to your VBoxManage script and click ok. Schedule your task for any of the options (we’ll change this in a minute) and continue. After skipping the next screen windows will ask you who you want to run this task, I’d suggest either ‘Administrator’ or creating a new privileged user. Remember we don’t want to interfere with the standard staff account on the machine at any point. Click next and check show advanced options for this task.

To the end of the run textbox add our ‘startvm GridMachine‘ string and ensure that run only when logged in is left unticked. Visit the schedule task next and change the schedule drop down to the option ‘when idle’, choose the amount of time you’d like the machine to be idle before moving on to the next tab.

Finally untick the option which states stop the task if it has been running X amount of time, but do tick the option to stop the task if the machine is no longer idle.


That’s it then for the windows host setup!


In this part we have set up a virtual machine to act as a worker, as well as the way in which we call and execute our job processing scripts (for myself a PHP script). From here we look at how to set up our copies of windows to start up the virtual machine in headless mode when the computer becomes idle, and save its state when the user resumes usage of the machine. Hopefully at this point you’re seeing how simple it is to set up such a system and are itching to get some experiments going yourself!

Next time

In Part 4 we’ll be looking at using tools to ensure that you’re running the latest version of the code and data sources so that obtained results are always up-to-date with the latest business information and logic.

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3 Responses to “Office Grid Computing using Virtual environments – Part 3”

  1. […] part 3 we’ll create our virtual processing machine and set up our windows machines to become […]

  2. […] part 3 we created our virtual processing machine and set up windows machines to become idle-time […]

  3. You are a Really Experienced Blogger, You either have quality understanding of what your talking about or you did some fantastic research. Thanks for this excellent post.

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