Students to cluster in Leipzig this summer

Robert Roe looks at two initiatives to draw more students into HPC this summer – one at the International Supercomputing Conference and one by PRACE.

As the pace quickens in the development of new hardware for high-performance computing, the demand for trained manpower is increasing – not only to develop and optimise these new architectures but also to make sure that application programs are re-written to take full advantage of all the innovations available to the end user.

So, for the third year running, the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) will host a Student Cluster Competition, organised in collaboration with the HPC Advisory Council. Held during the ISC exhibition in Leipzig towards the end of June, the Student Cluster Challenge is not just an opportunity to showcase student expertise but is designed to encourage the next generation of students to take up the challenges of high performance computing.

The issue is also exercising the minds of PRACE, the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe, which announced its ‘Summer of HPC’-- a summer placement programme for undergraduate and postgraduate students in 2014 – on 25 March. The programme offers summer placements at HPC centres across Europe to late-stage undergraduates and early-stage postgraduate students.

The shortage of skilled technicians is a constant battle for anyone running a HPC facility, as described recently in ‘How to plug the skills gap?’ Offering the next generation of computer scientists the chance to demonstrate the skills required to design, build, operate and optimise a small cluster efficiently, makes the ISC competition all the more important, together with the efforts by PRACE to get young people involved with HPC systems during their undergraduate degree.

Andrew Jones, of the Numerical Algorithms Group, warned in his article 'Supercomputing -- the reality behind the vision' that high-performance computing requires people, not just hardware and software: 'It needs the scientists/engineers who understand how to apply the tool effectively. It requires computational scientists and HPC software engineers who develop and optimise the application software. It needs HPC experts to design, deploy and operate the hardware and software systems. It requires HPC professionals to develop a HPC strategy, match requirements with solutions, procure capabilities, and ensure a productive service.'

He too stressed the need for long term initiatives to interest and educate people in HPC: 'Just as we need to have a roadmap for the hardware technology so that we can plan ahead, and a clear recognition that software needs long-term investment to thrive and deliver the promise of HPC, we also need a long-term plan for the people. We need to invest in the development of this part of the ecosystem just like the hardware and software.'

The ISC competition will feature small teams from universities around the world who will demonstrate their skills in assembling and optimising a small HPC cluster. This year a record of 11 teams will compete in a real-time challenge that will take place on the show floor, the teams will attempt to deliver the highest performance across a series of benchmarks and applications.

The teams have to demonstrate their prowess within certain constraints. The most important is that here is a cap on the amount of power any of the systems can use -- is currently set at 3000 Watts. With scalable hardware available on the market, the competition could simply become a battle for the amount of hardware that a team could persuade their sponsor to give them for the event, unless such a cap is imposed.

To prevent systems being modified after the start of the competition, the rules also ensure that no one is allowed to touch the system after it has been powered on, and no hibernation or suspension of any part of the system is allowed. In addition, no changes in the BIOS are allowed after the competition has started. System reboots are only allowed when the system is hung or it has encountered major failures. Detailed rules are available on the ISC’14 website.

The teams have two days to setup their system before the first sets of tests begin on Monday 23 June, with the Linpack and HPCC runs. The following two days are given over to running application software.

For the PRACE programme, up to ten applicants from across Europe will be selected to participate. Participants will spend two months working on projects related to PRACE’s technical or industrial work and ideally produce a visualisation or video of their results.

The ‘Summer of HPC’ programme will run from 1 July to 30 August 2014. Flights, accommodation and a stipend will be provided to all successful applicants. To ensure the widest interest – and to promote widespread application of HPC across as many fields as possible, PRACE is inviting students from all disciplines to apply, even if they have no previous experience in HPC. Some coding knowledge is a prerequisite but, according to PRACE, the most important attribute is a desire to learn, and share, more about HPC.

In the ISC/HPC Advisory Council Student Cluster Competition, last year’s overall winner was a team from South Africa (Centre for High Performance Computing CHPC) followed by two teams from China, Tsinghua University came second overall and Huazhong (Huazhong Centre for Science and Technology HUST) achieved the highest overall score on Linpack. South Africa and Tsinghua both choose to go for 8 nodes but Huazhong opted for 5. Similarly South Africa and Tsinghua both used over 120 cores whereas Huazhong used only 80. Another interesting contrast was in the memory per core, with South Africa opting to use only 4Gb per core, both Chinese teams used 8Gb per core.

Last year was also the first year that every team used compute accelerators in their designs. The majority of teams opted for Nvidia Kepler K20s, while Colorado and Purdue used the Intel Phi co-processor. All the teams used Mellanox Infiniband interconnects and switches.

This year, as last, the overall winners will be calculated using the scores from HPCC, the chosen applications, and an interview by the SCC board. The team scoring the highest aggregate points across all three components will be the overall winner of the competition. The top three places will all receive awards, as well as an award for the ‘highest overall Linpack’ score, and the ‘fan favourite’.

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