Cluster padawans vie for place in Shanghai super showdown

Spotlight on undergrads' HPC coding skills

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ASC13 The 2013 Student Cluster Competition season is off to a roaring start judging by the high level of interest in the inaugural Asia Student Supercomputer Challenge (ASC13), which will kick off in Shanghai in mid-April.

Right now, the judges are sorting through the 42 applications submitted by universities from a wide swath of the world.

(For those of you who don’t know an undergraduate cluster-building race from a cluster-something-else, here’s a handy guide to these competitions.)

I was surprised by both the large number of universities applying for ASC13 and their far-flung locales. While most of the aspiring teams are from China, the committee has received applications from schools located in Russia, Korea, Taiwan, India, and even Saudi Arabia.

Each university submits a detailed application that outlines its HPC curriculum, the composition of its six-member team, a proposed hardware configuration, and how it's going to optimise its systems for the three number-crunching applications that need to be conquered to win the contest.

Just applying to ASC13 (jointly sponsored by the Asia Student Supercomputer Challenge committee, the HPC Advisory Council, Inspur, and Intel) is a pretty complex undertaking. In addition to providing the info above, teams also have to submit a formal test proposal for each of the three featured workloads. These apps include the HPL (LINPACK) benchmark and Gromacs, a widely-used molecular dynamics package.

The third app, BSDE option pricing, is a Monte Carlo calculation that adds a new wrinkle to student cluster competition-dom. For BSDE, students will optimising their routines on Intel’s newly introduced Phi accelerator card. Their results will be compared to a single-core serial test version of the app to determine which team has done the best job.

In order to complete the testing proposal, students will have to perform some initial performance tests, discuss various ways they’re going to try to increase performance of their hand-built supercomputers, and even predict how effective their techniques will be at driving higher throughput.

(This will have to be better than what I’d probably propose – something along the lines of, “We’ll use the automatic wizard to install the software, then change whatever settings we can find ‘till this bad boy goes a little faster, and then spend the rest of the time congratulating ourselves.”)

The ASC committee will painstakingly examine each application, assigning points to each section. Then they’ll invite the ten best entrants to compete in the finals in Shanghai in mid-April. Those teams will be notified this week.

More NASCAR than Formula One

All of this verifying, testing, and planning is going to come in very handy. ASC13 is being run a lot like NASCAR or a showroom stock car race. In the ISC and SC competitions, students work with their own hardware sponsors and use a wide range of different hardware configurations – just like in Formula One.

But at ASC13, system sponsor Inspur is providing gear to the ten teams who make the cut to compete at the final Shanghai showdown. Teams can bring different hardware if they really want to, but it will be their responsibility to obtain and transport it. I figure that most teams will probably take advantage of Inspur’s hardware hospitality and rely on their software tuning expertise to put them in the winner’s circle.

Students taking the Inspur route will have a limited menu of hardware to choose from; and, like always, they’re all dealing with the same 3,000-watt power cap. The end result is much like a NASCAR race: they’ll all be running very similar hardware that provides about the same level of performance. So their skill at tuning and optimizing each app is going to make all the difference between winning or just being happy to be in the finals.

But there’s even more at stake in ASC13 besides the glory and prestige of winning the first leg of the Student Cluster 2013 Triple Crown and the first-ever ASC: prize money.

The Overall Gold Winner will receive 100,000 RMB, or about $16,000, and the Silver Winner will get 50,000 RMB ($8,000). The team with the highest LINPACK result will take home 10,000 RMB (about $1,600), and the team that does the best job of optimising BDSE with Intel’s Phi will walk away with yet another 10k RMD.

And, as if prize money weren’t enough, the two top Chinese teams will get automatic berths in the ISC’13 Student Cluster Competition this June in Leipzig.

In future articles we’ll profile the ten teams headed to Shanghai. We won’t be on the ground in China for our trademark Boot-to-Shutdown coverage on this one, unfortunately, but we’ll do our best to report on the battle and, of course, the final results.

While ASC13 is the focus right now, the rest of the student cluster competition world isn’t resting. Both the format and teams have been selected for the ISC’13 Leipzig fray. And the SC13 competition organisers are moving forward with both a traditional big-iron battle and a new "Commodity Track" competition that limits entrants to hardware costing less than $2,500.

We’ll be covering the 2013 Student Cluster season from every angle to bring you, if you'll excuse the hyperbole, the most compelling spectacle in computer sports today. ®

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