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China sends likely pair to student cluster smackdown

Meet Tsinghua U and NUDT

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ISC 2012 China is sending two teams to the ISC Student Cluster Competition (iSCC) this June in Hamburg. Tsinghua University and the National University of Defense Technology were survivors of a rigorous Hunger Games-style play-in competition; they had to beat out four other teams for the coveted Hamburg spots. Chinese server/services vendor Inspur is providing hardware and underwriting both teams.

(The competition was exactly like The Hunger Games if the hit book/movie characters had been forced to build their own clustered systems and achieve the highest scores on a set of HPC benchmarks. Oh, and if the losers weren’t killed – but rather just didn’t get to go to Hamburg. Other than that, the Chinese cluster competition was exactly like the movie – details here).

We don’t have a lot of first-hand knowledge about Tsinghua University. It’s based in Beijing, about 14km from Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant – home of the best Beijing duck (aka Peking duck) in the world. Mao, Khrushchev and Castro ate there, and so did Nixon on his visits. They have a way with ducks, to say the least.

And it looks like Tsinghua has a way with technology. It's perennially ranked as one of the top three science and technology universities in China – sort of like MIT in the US. It recently marked its 101st anniversary, and probably wants to bring home a cluster competition trophy or two as a little birthday present to itself.

The National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) is the other competitor from the Middle Kingdom. We know a bit more about them. NUDT as an institution rocketed onto the world stage when it unveiled Tianhe-1A, the world’s fastest supercomputer, in 2010. This 2.56 petaflop super was also the largest hybrid system in the world, using 14,336 Xeon processors combined with 7,168 NVIDIA M2050 Tesla GPUs.

NUDT first appeared on the cluster sports scene when it participated in the SC11 Student Cluster Competition in Seattle last fall. It brought a GPU-heavy system and wasn’t given much of a chance to win by SCC observers.

While some of the competition benchmarks were GPU-friendly others were not, and it didn’t seem that a system so heavily reliant on GPUs would be able to yield as much overall performance as the more balanced configurations – unless the students were somehow able to optimise the complex codes to take advantage of their GPUs. Which is exactly what they did, and in impressive manner.

NUDT didn’t win the overall competition. It finished just barely behind Team Taiwan (another team that optimised its codes for GPUs), but came within an eyelash of winning it all. In the intra-China play-in competition, NUDT finished second yet again – this time to Tsinghua University.

Both of these Chinese teams have to be regarded as strong competitors in Hamburg. They made it through the tournament in China running the same apps they’ll be running in Hamburg, on the same hardware, in competition conditions. That’s damned good training for the big show, and maybe more preparation than the US and German teams have put in. Is it enough to land the Middle Kingdom at the top of the iSCC leader boards? We’ll see, but they have to be early favourites. ®

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