Excited students, $2,500, quivering racks and dreams of glory

Four student teams vie for Commodity Cluster Crown

SCC 2013 The new "Commodity Track" of the upcoming SC13 Student Cluster Competition has hit a chord with cluster competition aficionados worldwide and Register readers alike.

I laid out the terms of this competition in a recent story, and plenty of you weighed in with recommendations on how these kids could get the most HPC bang out of their $2,500 bucks.

These teams have a unique challenge. While the students in the "Standard Track" big iron competition design their own systems, they are limited by what their vendor hardware partners donate.

But the kids who are competing in the "Commodity track" can do anything they want, as long as they spend less than $2,500 and stay under the generous 15 amp (120 volt) power cap.

One problem with covering this pre-competition phase of the event is that the specifics of the team configurations are confidential – no "secret weapons" can be revealed. Also, there’s quite a bit of variation between what the students think they’ll be bringing to the competition and what they actually show up with.

Perhaps one of the team faculty advisors put it best when he said:

As only sublimely confident undergraduates can do, my team decided last night to scrap the design we've been working for the whole summer and take a radical left-hand turn using hardware we don't actually own yet. It made me so proud! These five guys are mastering so much material and digging into technical specs in a way I'd never get if they were just taking a class.

With that, let’s take a closer look at the Commodity Track teams...

Bentley University is a small, business-oriented university founded in 1917. It’s located in Waltham, Massachusetts and, according to Wikipedia, is accessible via the MTBA 554 bus. The University of Massachusetts is also assisting in the design of the cluster and staffing the travel team.

Like many of you, I don’t know much about Bentley and only a little bit more about UMass (it’s in Massachusetts). But after reading their cluster competition application, I can tell you that this is a group of highly ambitious and thoughtful students.

Assuming their hardware plans come together, they’ll be sporting one of the most complex builds in the competition. We’re talking lots of nodes, and probably more cores any other competitor in the Commodity Track.

Their approach is to design the system building blocks to best match the various applications they’ll be running. While this is the right idea, it’s potentially problematic. The teams don’t know the size or complexity of the dataset they’ll need to work with for each application. Some of the compute tasks are shorter than others, so Team Bentley will need to take a page from Flex the Falcon, the Bentley U mascot, and be ready to make adjustments on the fly in order to max out their performance.

The ASU Sun Devils hail from the desert wastelands (and shopping malls) of Phoenix, Arizona. With more than 70,000 students, ASU is the largest school in the competition this year.

Team Sun Devil is composed of four juniors and a single freshman, and probably has the most real-world IT experience. Two of their members formerly worked in the private sector, specialising in network and systems administration. Another team member was recently in the military, and competed in Intel’s Ultimate Engineering Experience – where his team won the award for the longest sustained quadcopter flight controlled by a laptop. Other team members work in ASU’s A2C2 HPC center and have experience both in building and managing research clusters.

Team Sun Devil is bringing the power to the Commodity Track competition. Their proposed design looks to have fewer, but more powerful, nodes. This could be a winning strategy, since it will reduce internode communications and the latency that comes with it.

It will be interesting to see whether Team Sun Devil has the right mix of hardware in their configuration. Will they be able to match up the workloads to their nodes in order to run at peak efficiency? We’ll see in Denver.

Slippery Rock is competing at the Student Cluster Competition for the second time. They were in Salt Lake City at SC12, vying for first prize in the LittleFe competition track.

This isn’t the first mini-cluster rodeo for Team Rock; the school regularly competes in or hosts various programming, maths, and robotics competitions. They’re sending an experienced, senior-heavy team to Denver. And they have high hopes for their low-budget creation.

Every member of Team Rock has either completed or is currently taking the school’s capstone computer science class. One of the major requirements is for students to build their own Beowulf-style cluster and learn how to exploit OpenMP and GPUs for enhanced parallelism.

Team Rock’s approach to the competition is classic. As they put it in their application, they’ll “...build an old fashioned home-brew machine”. This means buying the parts retail from Newegg and putting them together themselves.

In terms of node and core count, I would expect to see the Team Rock machine somewhere in the middle of the pack, with ASU at the low extreme and Bentley on the high side. The Slippery Rock system will be more of a traditional “balanced” mini-cluster, which could pay off in this competition.

Both the Standard and Commodity tracks of the SC Student Cluster competitions have always been open to university and even high school teams. However, the Skyline Eagles are the only high school to ever compete in any SCC event.

Their first outing was at SC12 in hometown Salt Lake City, Utah. They competed in the LittleFe event, where students built their own LittleFe-based cluster and used it to run the time-honored “Traveling Salesman” problem.

Although they were all high school students, they fit right in with the rest of the SC12 crowd. One of the kids had enough beard to make me request a look at his driving licence in order to verify his age. Team Skyline is a close-knit bunch. They worked together well at the SC12 competition and in other computing-related contests.

Here’s an interesting passage from Team Skyline’s initial competition proposal:

We have also worked on software coding for large data sets and storage when we helped develop a replacement for our district’s current gradebook program, which has numerous design and performance flaws.

Hmm… this either makes these guys the most trustworthy high school students EVER, or the guys who will all graduate with near-perfect 4.0 grade point averages. (“Near-perfect” is key. Absolute perfection draws scrutiny, as demonstrated by some friends of mine in high school who got their grubby mitts on the test and homework answers for an entire course in Business Law. It didn’t end well.)

The Commodity Track is a very interesting addition to the SCC competition stew. As always, we’ll be covering both the Standard Track and this new Commodity Track from every angle. Next up, we’ll talk about the applications, and then we’ll unveil yet another surprising wrinkle that we’ll be seeing this year in Denver. ®

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