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When students compete, the community wins

As Dustin Leverman walked through the Student Cluster Competition during the SC13 conference in Denver, he knew full well the excitement and exasperation felt by the 12 student teams as they strived to get their cluster computers up and running so they could run a series of scientific codes. Amidst rising piles of soda cans, junk food wrappers and other detritus, many of the teams worked around the clock to try to win the competition.

When the SC14 conference convenes in November 2014 in New Orleans, Leverman will again be chairing the competition in which 12 teams of students from around the world race to build high-performance computing clusters, then run a set of specified programs as fast and efficiently as possible.

As the Student Cluster Competition Chair, Leverman and his committee set out the rules, select the teams, then offer encouragement and support during the event. Although SC14 will mark his second year as event chair, the SC13 competition wasn’t his first.

In 2007, he was a member of the University of Colorado team competing in the inaugural Student Cluster Challenge at SC07 in Reno, Nevada. Although the University of Alberta in Canada took home top honours that year, Leverman made some important connections that led to an internship and then his current job as a systems administrator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

‘The Student Cluster Challenge was my introduction to HPC and jump-started my career,’ Leverman said. ‘Now I want to help make sure that new students are getting the same opportunity I had and to help bring them into HPC.’

Brent Gorda, now general manager of the High Performance Data Division at Intel, first got the idea for the competition while walking on the show floor at SC05 in Seattle and debating with Bill Boas. At the time, they both were working on advanced architectures at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Gorda said that an idea from Gary New of the National Center for Atmospheric Research – limiting the power by setting an upper limit to the current that could be drawn of 26 Amps – established a level playing field for the competition.

By the time SC07 rolled around, the event had been planned, the logistics organised, and teams selected. The challenge began with the ceremonial opening of the exhibition at 7pm Monday night and continued until mid-afternoon Wednesday. The teams had 35 hours to crunch through, before putting their screwdrivers and keyboards down.

Spreading globally

The idea caught on and SC14 will mark the eighth consecutive year the student teams will vie for top honours. And the concept has also spread to three other continents. In 2012, the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) launched its version of the competition in Europe. A regional competition was set up in South Africa and, most recently, the Asia Student Supercomputer Challenge was held in April 2014 in Shanghai.

Dan Olds, an HPC consultant and owner of Gabriel Consulting Group, has become an ardent fan of the competitions, observing them in the US, Germany, South Africa and China. He’s also set up a website to help track them at .

‘It’s one of the few things in our business where the rubber truly meets the road, and it comes from an unlikely source – students,’ Olds said. ‘What’s not to like? Students spend six months of their time preparing for this competition, all the while learning an incredible amount of skills in software, hardware, and scientific computing.’

At SC14, Team KrautComputing from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany, will be looking to improve on third place at SC13. The team formed after a student learned about the competition at SC12.

‘I thought it sounded like a cool idea and I asked others to join,’ said Christopher Bross, who is in his sixth semester studying computational engineering. Once the team formed, they enlisted Andreas Schaefer as their advisor.

‘We mostly work independently and try to do most stuff on our own, and go to Andreas when we need extra help,’ Bross said. ‘We researched our hardware and found our own sponsors.’
Schaefer said his goal as advisor is to let the students independently solve as many issues as they can, but to be there as a mentor when they need guidance.

‘Allowing them to solve problems independently is the only way to succeed – not only in the competition, but also in real life,’ Schaefer said. ‘My role is rather the one of a mentor, to help the team crack those nuts that seemed too hard for them, such as ‘Why is our InfiniBand still not working?’ or ‘What kind of nodes should we get?’ Mentoring an SCC team is definitely something I can recommend – it’s both a challenge and a learning experience.’

The SC13 team decided to use GPUs and partnered with Nvidia, along with others including the German integrator Megware and the Portland Group. There were some difficulties in adapting the applications to run on GPUs in 2013, a lesson they will take account of this year.
‘We did a good job last year, but we’re going to try to do better this year,’ Bross said. ‘I think we’re a good team and we’re coming back to win.’

However, Bross adds, the opportunity to attend the SC conference is almost equally important.
‘It’s a great experience to be part of SC and an opportunity to put the things that you learn at the university into practice,’ he said. ‘You also make great contacts, not just with the other students, but with industry and the rest of the HPC world.’

Counting up the benefits

The team also enjoyed other benefits. They were able to bring their system back to the university to use in their research, and one team member got an internship with Nvidia. Finally, Bross said, competing at SC helps raise the visibility of HPC among students at the university.
At Purdue University in Indiana, Stephen Harrell sees a similar benefit. Within the Computer Science Department, parallel programming competitions are better known than HPC events, said Harrell, who has been bringing a team to SC since 2010. He’s also taken a Purdue team to ISC in Germany and the Asia Student Supercomputer Challenge.

‘Ultimately, these challenges are a great way to expose students to HPC,’ Harrell said, ‘and honestly, the students really enjoy it.’

Harrell said he does a little recruiting, such as speaking at student chapter meetings of IEEE and Women in Computer Science, and relies a lot on word of mouth. He also co-teaches a class on HPC and scientific computing to coincide with the team’s preparation.

‘In selecting the team, interest and passion are the number one things we look for,’ said Harrell. ‘We also want students who will be appreciative of the opportunities being afforded them.’

Like others, Harrell cites the fact that the world’s HPC community meets at SC, and being in the competition provides students with lots of opportunities for making connections.

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