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Two Texan teams tool up, ride out to enormo cluster shootout

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SC12 People in most US states would be ecstatic (or, perhaps, totally indifferent) to hear that one of their universities made it to the 2012 Student Cluster Competition (SCC) in Salt Lake City, but the state of Texas wanted more - so it's sending two teams to the Great Salt Lake Siege.

Details on cluster-building competition rules, applications and prizes are here and here. (I say prizes, there aren't really any but it's the taking part that counts.) Go ahead and read those articles if you haven't already; I’ll pause here until you catch up.

With that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the Texas combatants.

Team Longhorn, which competed at SC10 in New Orleans and SC11 in Seattle, represents the University of Texas at Austin. At SC10 it was one of only three teams to break the teraflop barrier, grabbing the top LINPACK benchmark award and a piece of student cluster-building glory. The group cemented its presence in the annals of SCC history in 2011 when it brought the first liquid immersion-cooled cluster to the Battle in Seattle. It did well in both competitions, and had the highest non-hybrid scores in 2011, but it hasn't taken the overall winner crown (there isn’t a real crown).

This year, the Longhorns are bringing back a mixed team of computer science, math, physics and electrical engineering students. Half of the team members have competed in previous SC events. I don’t think there has been any coaching staff turnover – or at least I haven’t seen reports of any changes on ESPN, Fox Sports, or the other usual outlets.

As in years past, Team Longhorn is sponsored by hometown computer giant Dell and heavily supported by the supercomputer gurus at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). It’ll be interesting to see what Team Longhorn has up its sleeves for Salt Lake City. Will it bring its deep-fried nodes? Its mineral-oil immersive cooling was quite a bit of hassle, but it did pay off in allowing the students to run more nodes and stay within the power envelope.

I also wonder if it'll go down the hybrid HPC route and add GPUs or other accelerators to its configuration this year. I know that the team considered them for both New Orleans in 2010 and Seattle in 2011 but just didn’t see it as a winning approach. Has the group changed its mind for 2012?

Team Red Raider hails from Texas Tech University located in beautiful Lubbock, Texas. From what I can tell, this is the first time Texas Tech has fielded a student cluster team, unless it's been competing incognito in murky underground HPC clustering tournaments. (They’re just like Fight Club, but with much more math. Like Fight Club, the first rule of underground HPC clustering tournaments is: “You don’t talk about underground HPC clustering tournaments.”)

In its application (which was written in late spring), the Tech team talks about a wide range of technologies it might (or might not) use in its cluster. It's looking at all of the major processor and accelerator combinations, and secured sponsorship from Dell. The students have also received significant assistance and mentoring from the High Performance Computing Center at Texas Tech. I also noticed in its application that it made a point of explicitly thanking all of the institutions and several individuals who have helped the team put together its effort – it was a nice touch that says something (something good) about the kids.

The Red Raiders look like the usual group of computer science and engineering undergrads, with a chemistry-math major thrown in for good measure. Outwardly, that’s typical stuff. However, they have some special expertise on the team that could give them a leg up on the competition. If what they’re saying in their application pans out, they’ll be sporting a cluster configuration that will be, well, highly interesting. And, yes, I’m being intentionally vague. ®

You can find more coverage of the student cluster competition as well as SC12 supercomputer news right here

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