Farm Cluster Intro

7 minute read


This post is essentially a writeup of a ~2 hour in-person lesson I did for a few friends who were interested in using the UC Davis CAES FARM computing cluster. They both had a little experience, but not much, working from the command line, and we were all on Macs, so it was pretty easy to sit next to each other and have them follow along. Both of them had similar needs as well: getting some long-running R scripts onto the FARM to free up their computers, and maybe get some performance boosts along the way.

This is by no means a comprehensive lesson on high performance computing, nor is it a comprehensive lesson on using the Unix shell, nor is it a compr… You get the idea: I’m not claiming to know all that much about anything. This lesson is intended to help a novice get their R scripts running on the FARM, using whatever strategy or philosophy I’ve figured out to get my R scripts running on the FARM.

What Will Be Covered

  • a few commands in Unix shell
  • accessing the FARM with SSH
  • moving files back and forth between FARM and your computer
  • basic SLURM commands on the FARM
  • pairing an R script and a SLURM submission script
  • general format for saving R results/outputs
  • how to install R packages on the FARM

What Won’t Be Covered

  • parallelization of code
    • this is pretty specific to your task
    • I’m not good enough to feel comfortable giving a general overview
  • anything on Windows
    • ¯\(ツ)
  • a comprehensive description of any single topic
    • I’m not building the base of a pyramid here, I’m building a rickety ladder that will hopefully get you where you need to go
    • you can make that ladder less rickety or use it to access more places by building up a better foundation in the topics I’m touching on
  • other clusters
    • I’ve only ever worked on one cluster
    • while some of this may be generalized to other computing clusters, be careful

Unix Shell Basics

Terminal, command line, and shell, oh my! I’m going to do a quick rundown of these terms, to start. A Terminal is a program that lets you type text in, and get text back as a response. The command line is just the line where you type in those text commands. Finally, a shell is an application that interprets those text commands, it’s almost like a translator between you and the computer, taking the text you type and translating it for the computer, then translating what the computer gives as its response. The default shell for Macs and many Linux distributions is bash, which we’ll be using today.

Go ahead and open up the Terminal application on your computer. You should be greeted by some type of prompt, which will probably involve something with your username, and it’ll end with the dollar sign $. Once you’re here, type ls and hit Enter. Congratulations, you’ve just run your first shell command! ls will list all the files in your current directory, which should be your user by default. Now try typing pwd and hitting enter, which will print working directory, or where your shell is currently working. On my computer, it is MJ, my username. You can also use ~ as a shortcut for your Home directory.

You can add options to a command like ls, like ls -a to list all the files in your directory.

You can check the manual page for any function by using the command man. For example, man ls will bring up the manual page for the ls function, which includes all of the possible options you can use. You can scroll up and down the manual page and press q to exit the manual page.

Another key function we’ll use is cd, which we use to change the current working directory. For example, if I’m in my Home directory (my username, MJ), which contains a Documents folder, I can use the command cd Documents/ to change my working directory to MJ/Documents. You can type pwd to verify where you’ve moved to, and ls to list all the files in your new working directory. To go up one level from your current working directory, like moving from MJ/Documents up to MJ, you type cd ... .. just means “up one level”.

We will be using cd and ls a ton, and we’ll introduce other commands as we need them.

Showing Hidden Files

If you’re very observant, you may have noticed some strange files when I ran ls -a on my computer, a whole bunch of files that all begin with .. These are called “hidden files”, and by default, Finder on a Mac will not show them. They typically deal with “under the hood” stuff on your computer, and we’re about to get a little bit “under the hood”.

If you can see all the hidden files in Finder under your user, then you can skip the next section. If you don’t see them in Finder, we’ll need to change that. If you’re on Windows, Google around a little bit to see if this is even a problem for you, I honestly have no idea. Linux should show them by default.

We’re going to set up your Mac to permanently show hidden files any time you’re looking around in Finder, as this is going to be important in the future. Copy-paste the following code into your Terminal: defaults write AppleShowAllFiles YES. Now hit Enter.

Now go up to the apple icon in your menu bar, select Force Quit, select Finder, and click the Relaunch button. Now all your hidden files should show up in your Finder. We’ll be looking at some of these files later on.

Making a FARM Account

If you go to the FARM official website and scroll down to the Access Policy section, where you’ll find a link to the Account Request Form and instructions on making an account. Please follow these instructions. When you log in to the Account Request Form, it will ask you to upload an SSH public key. We’ll go through this process next.

Generating an SSH Key

SSH is a widely-used protocol for securely logging into a computer from another computer. Since the FARM is basically another gigantic computer, this is what we’ve gotta do.

The way SSH works is that you generate a key pair. You can think of this as a pair of extremely weird and long passwords that recognize each other. One is your public key and the other is the private key. As the names suggest, your public key will get shared with the other computer you want to log into, and the private key stays on your computer and should never ever ever be shared. I don’t know enough to say “well actually it’s ok in this circumstance”, and if you’re reading this, neither do you, so just never ever share it, ok?

To generate a key pair, we’ll use the command ssh-keygen with some options. Type out ssh-keygen -b 4096 -t rsa to create the type of key recommended by the FARM documentation (I won’t get into too much detail here). Hit Enter. You will then be prompted to Enter file in which to save the key (your_home_directory/.ssh/id_rsa):. Just hit enter to put the keys in the default location. Next, you’ll be prompted to enter a passphrase. Choose a hard password, but remember it. This isn’t Gmail, if you forget this password, there’s no way to get it back. As you type, nothing will show up, and this is ok. Just type out your passphrase and hit Enter when you’re done. You’ll have to retype it again, and then press Enter again. You should now get a confirmation that the key pair was created.

These keys now live in your .ssh folder, which resides in your Home directory. You should check to make sure you can get to this location in your Finder. Go look in your Home directory in Finder, and look for the .ssh folder. Go into this folder, and you shoud see your private id_rsa and public files.

Now, on the Account Request Form, where it says to upload your public key, you should be able to click the button and navigate to this file and upload it. Make sure it is the public key you are uploading. Then finish off the instructions on making your FARM account. You should get an email when your account is set up and you’re able to access the FARM. Be sure to write down your username and any other info you’re given.

Set Up Known Host

Logging On and Looking Around

rsync Basics

Making Directories and Files

.R and .sh Paired Scripts

sinfo and squeue

Submitting Jobs with sbatch

Checking stout and sterror

rsync Results Back

srun Interactive R Session

Set Up Directory for R Packages

Install R Packages to Directory

Load Packages from Here