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University students chase cluster victory

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SC11 The field is set. Eight student teams have been selected to compete in the ultimate computer sports event of our time – the Supercomputing 2011 (SC11) Student Cluster Challenge, aka the SCC… aka Cluster for Glory… aka Clusterbowl, Cluster Cup, and Cluster-geddon.

I know that the vast majority of readers feverishly follow this competition, but here’s a brief rundown for the small minority who somehow are unaware of what we’re talking about.

Eight university teams, each composed of six undergraduate students and a coach, compete to build the most powerful cluster computers they can within a power ceiling. This year, as always, there is a hard limit of 26 amps – and they’re penalized if they go above that threshold.

They have months to figure out their system configuration, learn how to tune it, and learn the various applications they’ll be judged upon. They then pack it all up, transport it to Seattle, and reassemble it on the SC11 show floor. The entire competition will take place in full view of show spectators, who are encouraged to visit the teams and find out what’s going on.

The teams are sponsored by their academic institutions and also have vendor partners. Students can get help from their coaches and other experts, such as domain scientists, before the competition. The vendor partners can provide hardware, software, and coaching before the competition, but play no role once the challenge begins.

I think we're alone now

Once the bell rings the students are on their own, alone in the arena, their fates hinging on what they’ve learned in the preceding months and how well they can adapt to the inevitable curves the competition will throw at them.

Hardware and software choices are up to the teams and whatever they can get from their vendor sponsors. In past competitions, we’ve seen top-fuel Cray dragsters, hybrid GPGPU-CPU configurations, and traditional pizza box clusters fueled by various versions of Linux or Microsoft’s HPC server operating systems.

The teams are judged on five computational challenges plus an interview that assesses how well they understand their clusters, the workloads, and what they’ve learned.

The SCC marathon begins with a one-day sprint stage on Monday, 14 November where students try to get the highest HPCC benchmark they can before 5:30pm. The team that achieves the best LINPACK score (a subset of the HPCC suite) will receive recognition and adulation the next day.

The grueling grind begins in earnest Monday evening at 7:30 p.m., when the teams receive the datasets for the four applications that are part of the challenge. This year, these apps include PFA (molecular dynamics simulation), GADGET (cosmology simulation), MrBayes (biology via Bayesian inference), and POP (modeling ocean circulation).

It’s entirely up to each team how to attack these problems. They can run through them sequentially or in any combination. Each app has different operational characteristics and resource demands. The choices students make here are crucial, and may mean the difference between glorious victory or middle-of-the-pack ignominy.

The teams work around the clock from Monday evening until they turn in their datasets at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday. Final results are announced at the awards luncheon on Thursday, where the winning team will be crowned (there isn’t a crown). They will then bask in glory and adulation for the next 12 months, secure in the knowledge that they are truly the kings of the SCC11 hill.

Talent spotting

Hyperbole aside, there are some truly great aspects of this event. The motivation and enthusiasm of the students is wonderful to see. Many of them haven’t had much exposure to HPC or large systems before, and as you talk to them, they tell you how much they’ve learned and what they still need to discover. They are really getting a lot out of this experience.

As the week goes on you start to hear about team members landing internships, summer jobs, or interviews for full-time jobs. The SCC gives them a platform to showcase their skills and desire to excel. This isn’t lost on the various research institutions, commercial enterprises, and vendor show attendees. You’ll see them wander over to talk to the teams and drop off business cards.

If I were looking for talent, someone competing in this event would definitely get my attention. These students give up a lot of free time in order to learn the skills they need to compete. They’re team players, and highly motivated to succeed. What more could you want in a potential employee?

I’ll cover the Student Cluster Challenge extensively in the coming weeks. You’ll see profiles of each team and full coverage of the event itself including video blogs of the milestones and my middle-of-the-night drive-by interviews. This is going to be fun. Stay tuned … ®

SC11 Student Cluster Comp profiles

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