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That latest student craze sweeping China: Supercomputing wars

Dozens of universities battle for cluster contest slot

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HPC blog In a Wall Street Journal article last Friday, a bit of light was shone on China’s entry into the upper echelon of supercomputing nations over the past few years. In 2007 China had only 10 systems on the Top500 list. But like TV’s George Jefferson adding dry cleaning stores, China has been movin’ on up - it now has 74 of the top boxes.

When Jefferson moved into that dee-luxe apartment in the sky, as he put it, he constantly hatched schemes to thwart his business and personal rivals – much like what the Western world believes China will do with their new supercomputing prowess. The parallels are eerie.

The WSJ story points out that supercomputers in China are often used for local, non-supercomputing tasks rather than the ambitious basic research that these systems typically do in the rest of the world. But there’s another side of the Chinese supercomputing surge – it looks like HPC is rapidly becoming a cool pursuit for China’s university students.

The upcoming Student Cluster Competition at ISC’12 sparked a flurry of Chinese student cluster infighting to see which teams will carry the Chinese flag in Hamburg this June. China has been allotted two of the six competition slots, but there are dozens of Chinese universities vying for them.

To resolve the logjam, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (aided by the HPC Advisory Council and Chinese vendor Inspur) is sponsoring an intra-country clustering battle to select the best teams to represent the country at the ISC competition.

Each aspiring team will have to write a paper that showcases their HPC chops and discusses why they’d have the best chance to bring home the trophy. The teams who make this cut will face off in a cluster-building exercise using equipment provided by Inspur. The top two will travel to Hamburg to compete for the above-mentioned international student cluster trophy.

If you can read Chinese, here’s a link I’ve been given that purportedly outlines the contest. Since I can’t read Chinese, and Google’s translator can’t seem to make heads or tails of it, I’ll have to take their word for it.

This is the first year that the International Supercomputing Conference will host a cluster competition, but the Supercomputing organization (SC11) has had them for the last five years. I’ve been covering these competitions for the last couple of years and have seen steadily increasing interest in most quarters. The SC competition typically sees 15 or so serious entries and selects the eight best proposals for the actual competition.

For one country – even the largest country in the world – to have dozens of universities applying to enter the ISC cluster competition is noteworthy. It indicates a groundswell of interest in computing in general and HPC specifically.

Some of this may be fueled by the publicity surrounding China’s second place NUDT team from the SC’11 Student Cluster Competition (The Battle in Seattle) last November. It may also be due to the fact that HPC technology is now spreading throughout China, and that’s whetting student appetites to learn more and see what they can do on the world stage.

It’ll be interesting to see which teams advance to Hamburg for the finals in June. With both ISC and SC fielding student cluster competitions this year, is it time for The Reg to set up a Computer Sports Channel? We could start out covering the clustering stuff and then extend into robot wars, AI competitions, and the like. That would be huge fun and maybe score me a cool blazer. ®

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