Scraggly student veterans bid for SC12 victory

Does experience = cluster triumph?

SC12 A couple of old-timer teams round out the field at the upcoming SC12 Student Cluster Competition (SCC) in Salt Lake City. These contests started in 2007 and between them, these two teams have participated in a total of nine matches.

Each school has six team members plus three advisors/coaches. Let’s assume that the competition consumes six hours per week (it’s probably more) for six months: conservatively, students and faculty at these two schools have invested more than 25,000 hours in designing, building, testing, and ultimately competing against other teams with their clusters. That’s 631 weeks of a 40-hour-per-week job, or more than 12 years of real-world working life. (This assumes a typical US or Asian 50-week work year. Europeans should adjust to correct for longer vacations, holidays, ‘sick’ day allowances, work stoppages, etc.)

(And if you have no idea what I’m prattling on about, you can find details about the SC12 Student Cluster Competition here and the apps they’ll be running here)

So who are these two stalwart cluster competitors? Let’s meet ‘em ...

Team Taiwan comes to us from the National Tsing Hua University (NTHU) in Hsinchu, Taiwan (also known as the Windy City – because of the winds, I think). The school is one of the premiere science and engineering universities in all of Taiwan. If you’re a fan of rankings, you’ll be intrigued to know that NTHU has been ranked in the top 250 schools worldwide, and their engineering/IT program has been ranked as high as #67. They also have perhaps the most advantageous location of any school in the SCC – they’re right next door to the Hsinchu Science & Industrial Park, Taiwan’s Silicon Valley. This park is home to companies like TSMC, UMC, and Team Taiwan’s hardware sponsor, Acer.

Team Taiwan has participated in four of the five prior SCC competitions. They won Highest LINPACK in the inaugural event at SC07 in Reno with 420 Gigaflops. By comparison, the Highest LINPACK award at SC11 (The Battle in Seattle) went to Team Russia with their 1.926 Teraflops (1926 Gigaflops) score. So in just five years, we’ve seen the top SCC LINPACK increase by 4.58x… not bad at all.

The kids from NTHU won the LINPACK award again in 2008 with a 703 Gigaflop mark but then took a break from competition in 2009. They returned to the fray in 2010 (Battle of New Orleans) and claimed the Overall Winner award. In 2011, they did it again in Seattle and became the first team to repeat as SCC champions. This year, they’re going for an unprecedented three-peat. Can they pull it off?

Team Taiwan is bringing an experienced and close-knit team to Salt Lake City. All are computer science or electrical engineering majors, and all have trained hard for this competition. One of the surprises in 2011 was that Team Taiwan (along with Team China) had managed to optimize the scientific application codes so that they ran efficiently on their GPU-heavy systems.

Most observers, myself included, figured that the GPU teams might do well on a few of the apps, but that they didn’t have the time or expertise to optimize the other apps for use on GPUs. We were all proven wrong. Can Team Taiwan confound the experts again to become the first three-time champion of the student clustering world?

Team Boilermaker from Purdue University is the only team that has participated in each and every Student Cluster Competition. They’ve seen (and helped) the competition grow from an interesting sideshow at SC07 to the world’s premiere computer sporting event. When the history of the SCC is written, the folks from West Lafayette, Indiana will have a prominent place as one of the pioneering institutions that made SCC’s success possible.

The Boilermakers are packing their hammers and traveling to Salt Lake City to make a try for the 2012 SCC crown. They’re bringing a veteran team to the Salt Lake Siege, accompanied by their long-time coaching staff. As they explain in their application, they’ve worked harder in the off-season to gain a deeper understanding of the scientific applications that make up the bulk of the processing challenges. They feel that knowing these apps better will give them the insight they need to tune them for maximum performance.

But for Purdue, the SCC pays off in a myriad of ways, far beyond posting the highest LINPACK or winning the Overall award. As they put it:

“A Purdue team has never won the competition, however, we have had tremendous success with the Student Cluster Competition. Purdue believes in HPC education and benefits immensely from the competition. We have designed a curriculum with our faculty advisor that bridges the gap between domain science and HPC to support the competition. Our competition alumni have been placed in national labs, other universities and companies all in the HPC space…Although we have never won the competition Purdue has invested heavily in this educational opportunity, and as a result have made a real impact in HPC education at Purdue and our students’ careers.”

The application goes on to detail just a few of the positive outcomes (jobs received, positions held, papers published, etc) that have resulted from their participation in the Student Cluster Competitions over the years. It also outlines Purdue’s broad and deep range of HPC-related courses and discusses how these relate to both the SCC and to their greater mission of educating future HPC professionals.

It’s fun to talk about the SCC like it’s a big college football game or the Final Four. (For non-US readers, insert either World Cup or the World Series of Darts, or whatever.) But the real value in this event is how it impacts students, how much they learn, and what they’re doing with it afterwards.

Purdue has the right attitude about the competition, and it’s clear that they’re using it as a teaching tool to better prepare their students for the real world. They aren’t alone in this, however; the other participants also see SCC in this light. But Purdue has done the best job of articulating it in their proposal.

Of course, I’m still going to do my best to fan the competitive flames. I want to draw more attention to the competition and the kids who have sacrificed a lot of their personal time to participate. I get a charge from watching them eagerly attacking the tasks and working through the inevitable problems and barriers in their way. I think others will too.

So check back often for updates on the competition – I’ll be onsite in the SLC from beginning to end and will stay on top of all the action. ®

You can find more coverage of the student cluster competition as well as SC12 supercomputer news right here

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