South African students have established themselves as significant players by staging a surprise victory in the 2013 International Student Cluster Challenge – a victory made all the more remarkable as the first time they had access to their equipment was when they actually arrived in Leipzig – and even then, the computer arrived a day late.
The team of young undergraduates, from South Africa’s Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC), took the overall prize in the competition, staged at the International Supercomputing Conference in Leipzig, Germany, in June. There were two other prize-winners: Huazhong University of Science and Technology won the award for the highest Linpack score – they succeeded in getting their cluster to run at 8.455 TFlops; and the Rainforest Eagles (2.0) from the Costa Rica Institute of technology, who won the ‘fan favourite’ award with more than 75 per cent of the thousands of votes received from attendees at ISC’13. As recently as November 2007, Huazhong University’s achievement would have put them among the fastest 250 supercomputers in the world.
To win the overall title, the South African students had to pass three tests. They had to run the HPC Challenge benchmark on their cluster. This is a demanding test of a supercomputer’s performance which involves several other factors in addition to the traditional ‘Linpack’ measure. The HPCC performance of their cluster contributed 10 per cent of their score. However, all the participants in the student cluster challenge had to optimise their clusters so as to run five different real applications, and this counted for 50 per cent of the score. Finally they all had to explain themselves to the organising committee.
In the end, the contest for the overall championship was very tight. Only three of the eight teams managed to turn in a result for each of the three disclosed scientific apps (WRF, GROMACS, and MILC) and the two surprise apps (AMG and CP2K). The second Chinese team, the heavily favoured group from Tsinghua University, came second, just a single percentage point behind South Africa. On the Linpack measure, the team from Edinburgh University in Scotland came just a whisker behind Huazhong with a score of 8.321 TFlops.
Jointly arranged by the organising committee of the International Supercomputing Conference, and the HPC Advisory Council, the ISC cluster challenge is one of three world supercomputer competitions, alongside the SC from the USA and the Asia Student Supercomputer Challenge from China.