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June 13, 2012

Student Cluster Challenge Makes ISC Debut

Brian Sparks

Internationals spotlight shines on global competiveness and the future of computing

Spring in Germany and autumn in the United States draws global leaders from across vast fields of research, development, academia, government and industry to two distinct conferences which are everything but standard symposium fare.

Ongoing for over two decades, the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) and the SC conferences are built upon the rich heritage of supercomputing. Today both programs focus on a range of disciplines within high performance computing. Attendees are constantly pushing boundaries, discovering the unimaginable, proving the improbable, achieving the impossible or doing what for others may be altogether inconceivable. Combined, the conferences and community maintain a deeply rooted commitment to stewarding the future and their follow-generations in line to inherit this tremendous legacy.

On the event horizon is the Hamburg-based ISC, followed in November by SC12 in Salt Lake City. They are symbolic cornerstones, marking the beginning and completion of the academic calendar, underscoring their core focus on fostering education, expertise and community. Complementing the impressive attendee rosters and exhaustive program agendas are the student contingents who are as integral to the conference fabrics as the programs are critical to the student’s success and our relentless pursuit of understanding.

Student engagement has always been a central theme. Both conferences offer extensive student-focused initiatives designed to support both academic and professional pursuits. One of those programs is the Student Challenge, a rigorous technical competition designed to augment undergraduate disciplines in the design and use of system architectures and HPC applications. 

Drummed up by SC notables, like Ricky Kendall and company, as part of the stateside conference years ago the competition began as an “SC friendly.” Today the SC Student Cluster Challenge (SCC) is moving far beyond its “fan favorite” origins, with a few ardent devotees, to take center stage this June as an international competition.

For the first time in its history, ISC will host its first international student competition. Through generous sponsorship from Airbus, the launch of the ISC student challenge sets another milestone in conference history and is the result of tremendous vision and commitment from an exceptional team of people.

With a long history in student-oriented development programs, Gilad Shainer – whose affectionate title as “the hardest working man in HPC” is well earned – initiated the effort. He, along with the full backing of Mellanox Technologies Inc and support from colleague Pak Lui as well as the HPC Advisory Council, worked with ISC Chairs, conference organizers and numerous others to bring the live competition to Germany this month. Drawing team participation from across Europe, the United States and China, the result is nothing less than a profound achievement of epic proportion.

With the US focus on STEM and COMPETES initiatives directly, and comparable efforts globally, the student challenges are triggering national investments and interest. With growing representation of countries outside of the EU and US – including Russia, Costa Rica and beyond — year over year there are numerous new examples of the growing importance of this one small program. And with each year and competition comes an equal amount of heartwarming stories of heroes and champions. 

The bigger back-story leading to this year’s Hamburg challenge is the heated competition among teams that will represent China, whose approach best showcases a nation’s dependency on developing future generations of researchers and innovators. As far as what this means for the rest of the world, China has laid down the gauntlet and comes to the competition as the nation to beat.

Thirty teams vied for only six in-play finalist spots in the advance competition. While that alone should be enough to encourage competing nations to take heed, the ceremony and coverage included full endorsements from high-ranking officials and national media coverage throughout. Capturing both national and international attention is as much a testament to the talents of the competing and winning teams as it is recognition of the programs vision on developing technology expertise.  And is an international nod to the competition founders, teams and supporters alike who have championed the importance of this small program.

SCC champions and advocates like Dan Olds, of the Gabriel Consulting Group, is both patron and guardian to the competition. Enduring the same week-long schedule as the competing teams, he has given the competition not just a broad and international spotlight, but has brought it a life and personality of its own. Old’s has established a presence that the competition and the kids so richly deserved and that the conferences needed in order to help fuel the broad appeal.

Awareness of the competition has grown tremendously with everything from formal coverage throughout the conference week, complete with live competition footage and postings to this year’s virtual betting pool. This unique addition to the ISC program will allow fans to endorse their odds on favorites.

No challenge goes without its set of challenges. What the founders, team leads and chairs, like the Doug(s) and the host of others have managed to accomplish is awe-inspiring. They have been at the forefront, leading, advocating and championing the importance and rewards of these competitions. Breaking down barriers and moving impenetrable forces to achieve the unimaginable, challenge the improbable, deliver the impossible and accomplish what for others was altogether inconceivable.

What these champions – students, supporters and advocates alike – understand is the absolute need for and commitment to excellence. The future depends upon it.

Acceptance into the competition is no easy endeavor for any undergraduate whether backed by an entire nation or by a single academic advisor. The bar is intentionally set high.

As an educational program element for the students, competition begins from the outset. Anywhere from six to twelve months ahead of a conference, teams boot-strap their way through the entire process. From formalizing an undergraduate team complete with an advisor, securing mentors and endorsement from their representative institution, to architecting a competitive platform and garnering advanced commitment from the technology community, all the way through to submitting the team-authored proposal that must be unique and differentiated enough to be selected by a juried review body.

Looking at it from the academic calendar, and the student’s vantage point, preparation for selected teams generally coincides with summer and winter semester and break periods. So while their classmates are on break, student teams can be found heads down or in their labs, as they are encouraged to do as much advanced preparation that runs all the way through to hands-on testing prior to the competition.

Upon arrival at the conference, the competition begins in earnest. Each team builds a complete system that is bound by rigorous rules including limitations of advisor involvement, challenging parameters such as power-capping while pushing to achieve maximum performance. Students can be found, night and day, tuning their systems, optimizing their software, in order to achieve the optimal performance for each application to deliver the winning results across the entire competition.

Just a few short years ago, achieving teraflop (TF) performance was a huge leap in the SCC. The University of Texas team was the first to break the that threshold. Since then, three teams achieved the TF performance milestone during SC10 in New Orleans, whereas six out of eight teams hit that mark just a year later at SC11 in Seattle. Russia’s led with 1.92 TF, followed by China at 1.84, Taiwan at 1.83 and Texas at 1.37. These are phenomenal numbers in terms of both the base performance as well as the number of teams to break the TF threshold, particularly when the teams are only limited to 26 amps of total power.

In addition to unique system architectures and winning performance, there are additional competitive points awarded each team that range from team and individual presentations of their efforts and results, to peer and juried reviews, live interviews, etc. At the close of the competition the students are as exhausted as they are exhilarated. With the close of the conference the students participate in a formal award ceremony in this winner take all competition.

With the inauguration of the ISC competition, China’s in-nation competition and the November SC12 looming on the horizon, what started as a friendly is hotting-up. Will other nations follow suit? Will the student challenges go on to become a conference favorite and leading draw?

What is plausible is that the original stewards, annual committee, long-time attendees and newcomers alike are likely to be as inspired by the vitality of youth — not yet encumbered by the notion of impossibility — as the younger set is from having direct access to the expertise and experience of the pioneers in this broad field of possibilities.

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