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Americans invade Euro cluster compo

Buffalo, Bear-O-Dactyl vie for cluster glory

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ISC 2012 Two American universities vie for cluster fame and glory in the inaugural ISC'12 Student Cluster Competition (iSCC) in Hamburg next month. This competition, sponsored by Airbus, the HPC Advisory Council and ISC, gives university teams the chance to design, build, and benchmark their clusters against four teams of peers. They’re limited only by a hard power cap of 13 amps and the requirement that the gear they use be commercially available.

(For more on the competition in general, click your clicker here.)

The University of Colorado team has more institutional experience in the student clustering game than all of the other competitors combined. They’ve competed in all five of the SC student cluster challenges, but have yet to win all the marbles (there aren’t any real marbles), although they did score as ‘Fan Favorite’ in New Orleans at SC10.

Last year in Seattle, they brought more memory per node (126GB vs 64GB), a huge number of AMD Interlagos cores, and also the tallest team member (at 7ft) in competition history. Despite also having a veteran-packed team and coaching staff, solid vendor support, and Buffalo spirit (not sure what this is, but it seems to fit) they didn’t fare better than a middle-of-the-pack finish.

The Buffs have been great competitors. They show up on time and are unfailingly polite – they’re always nice – maybe too nice to win a competition like this? Do they have the killer instinct and drive necessary to conquer their cluster foes? Will we see a different Team Colorado in Hamburg next month?

Stony Brook University, the second US-based team, has been to the big cluster dance before. They were there for the first SC competition way back in '07, and won the overall crown (there isn’t a real crown) at SC09 in Portland.

They returned to New Orleans in 2010 to defend their title with a Cray-based design that was one of the first systems to utilise GPUs. They also dumped their university mascot (Wolfie the Seawolf) in favor of their own creation, the Stony Brook Clustering “Bear-O-Dactyl”. (“Why a ‘Bear-O-Dactyl?” “Because it’s scarier than a bear or a pterodactyl on their own.” Good call.)

Unfortunately, the combined power of the GPU and the Bear-O-Dactyl, supplanted by some mil-spec caffeine brought by one team member (yep, saw the box myself, and it was pretty cool) wasn’t quite enough to get them over the hump. They were beaten by Taiwan for the overall performance title, topped by Texas in LINPACK, and lost the Fan Favorite award to Colorado.

The members of Team Stony Brook were quirky and willing to take chances to leapfrog the competition. Their gamble with GPUs didn’t pay off in New Orleans; they just didn’t have enough optimised code, and the rest of their system wasn’t strong enough to make up for the performance shortfall. Will Hamburg be a different story? Can Stony Brook regain their former glory?

The Colorado Buffaloes and Stony Brook Seawolves have their work cut out for them in Hamburg. While both teams have had some competition experience, they’ll be facing a pair of formidable Chinese teams and the German home team. This will also will be the first time they’ve played outside the US.

Will the long trip have an impact on their efforts? The beer in Germany is almost certainly heavier than they’ve experienced in the US; will that play a role? Germany, like the rest of Europe, puts a near-fatal amount of power through wall outlets (220 or 240 volts vs 110 or 120 in the US). Will this become a factor in the competition?

According to research that I can’t find right now, as many as 47 per cent of American tourists in Europe are either killed or severely injured by electrical mishaps associated with plugging/unplugging common appliances. This hasn’t received much media attention, probably due to lobbying efforts from the duty free stores and the GSTC (Global Souvenir & Trinket Consortium). ®

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