Student Cluster Competition Coverage New Home

By Dan Olds

October 16, 2017

Hello computer sports fans! This is the first of many (many!) articles covering the world-wide phenomenon of Student Cluster Competitions. Finally, the Student Cluster Competition coverage has come to its natural home: HPCwire.

I’m Dan Olds and I’ve been in the IT industry since the mid-1990s and have been an IT industry analyst since 2001. I’ve been a huge fan of Student Cluster Competitions since I first started covering them at SC10 in New Orleans.

One of my missions in life is to publicize these competitions and show everyone in the industry how these events bolster HPC education and give the industry new blood. (Usually it’s not literally blood, but sometimes these events get a little rough…I could tell you stories….)

One big step towards that goal is bringing my cluster competition coverage over to HPCwire. There’s one overriding reason behind my decision: HPCwire cares a lot about the competitions and the role they play in developing skills and talent in the HPC community.

What IS a Student Cluster Competition Anyway?

Whether you’ve been following the competitions obsessively (holding viewing parties, sponsoring office betting pools, making action figures, etc.) or this is the first time you’ve ever heard of them, you probably have some questions.

There are rules and traditions in these competitions, just as there are in cricket, football and the Air Guitar World Championships. Understanding the rules and traditions will make these events more interesting.

A student cluster competition pits teams of university undergraduates (and even some high school kids) against each other to see which team can build, optimize and tune the fastest clustered supercomputer. The only limit on their hardware is that they can’t go over a 3,000 watt power cap.

There are currently three major student cluster competitions: the US-based SC competition held every November at the SC conference, the European-based ISC competition which is held every June, and the Asia-based Asian Student Cluster competition which is held in China during the spring.

Some rules are universal between the three competitions, for instance, the power limit of 3,000 watts. Also there’s a rule that the teams can’t get any outside help once the competition begins. All three events require competitors to run the HPCC benchmark and an independent HPL (LINPACK) run, plus a set of real-world scientific applications.

Teams receive points for system performance (usually “getting the most done” on the scientific programs) and, in some cases, the quality and precision of the results. In addition to the benchmarks and app runs, teams are grilled by HPC experts to gauge how well they understand their systems and the scientific tasks they’ve been running.

All of the major competitions feature a Highest LINPACK award, plus an Overall Champion award, along with some competition-specific additional awards. Each competition has between 12 and 20 teams competing for the prizes. The SC and ISC competitions take place live on the show floor of their respective events while the Asian competition is typically held at sites alongside the largest supercomputers in China.

The SC event is the oldest, having held the inaugural competition in 2007. ISC started their competition in 2012 and is now beginning its 6th year. The Asian event began in 2013 with their first competition in Shanghai.

While many of the rules and procedures are common between competition hosts, there are some differences:

SC competitions are grueling 48-hour marathons. The students begin their HPCC and separate LINPACK runs on Monday morning, and the results are due about 5pm that day. This usually isn’t very stressful; most teams have run these benchmarks many times and could do it in their sleep. The action really picks up Monday evening when the datasets for the scientific applications are released.

The apps and accompanying datasets are complex enough that it’s pretty much impossible for a team to complete every task. So from Monday evening until their final results are due on Wednesday afternoon, the students are pushing to get as much done as possible. Teams that can efficiently allocate processing resources have a big advantage.

ISC competitions are a set of three day-long sprints. Students run HPCC and LINPACK on the afternoon of day one but don’t receive their application datasets until the next morning. On days two and three, they’ll run through the list of workloads for that day and hand in the results later that afternoon.

The datasets usually aren’t so large that they’ll take a huge amount of time to run, meaning that students will have plenty of time to optimize the app to achieve maximum performance. However, there’s another wrinkle: the organizers spring a daily surprise application on the students. The teams don’t know what the app will be, so they can’t prepare for it; this puts a premium on team work and general HPC and science knowledge.

The ASC is like a combination of the ISC and SC competitions. Students still run HPC benchmarks (including LINPACK) on the first day, and then are given their application datasets. There are set times for when they need to turn in results for each application, on some they have a few hours, while on others they have more than a day. They typically have enough time to run every application, so the trick is to be able to optimize on the fly and get that extra bit of performance that will enable them to vault above their competitors.

Student cluster-building competitions are chock full of technical challenges, both “book learning” and practical learning, and quite a bit of fun too. I mean, who wouldn’t want to construct an HPC rig against the clock and kick an opponent in the benchmarks? Here’s what involved in the contests.

So how do these things work?

All three organizations use roughly the same process. The first step is to form a team of six undergraduate students (from any discipline) and at least one faculty advisor. Each team submits an application to the event managers, answering questions about why they want to participate, their university’s HPC and computer science curriculum, team skills, etc. A few weeks later, the selection committee decides which teams make the cut and which need to try again next year.

The groups who get the nod have several months of work ahead. They’ll need to find a sponsor (usually a hardware vendor) and make sure they have their budgetary bases covered. This process is a bit easier in the ASC since hardware vendor Inspur provides all of the gear for the student teams.

But in the other competitions, sponsors usually provide the latest and greatest gear, some advice, and some financial support for travel and other logistical costs. Incidentally, getting a sponsor isn’t all that difficult. Conference organizers (and other well-wishers like me) can help teams and vendors connect.

The rest of the time prior to the competition is spent designing, configuring, testing, tuning the clusters, and learning as much as possible about the applications they’ll be facing. Then the teams take these systems to the event and compete against each another in a live benchmark face-off.

When it comes to hardware, the sky’s the limit. Over the past few years, we’ve seen traditional CPU-only systems supplanted by hybrid CPU and GPU-powered clusters. We’ve also seen some ambitious teams experiment with cooling, using either direct connect liquid blocks or even full liquid immersion.

There’s no limit on how much gear, or what type of hardware, teams can bring to the competition. But there’s a catch: whatever they run can’t consume more than 3,000 watts at whatever volts and amps are customary in that location.

This  power limit applies to all of their compute nodes, file servers, switches, storage and everything else with the exception of PCs managing the system. There aren’t any loopholes to exploit, either – the entire system must remain powered on and operational during the entire three-day competition. This means that students can’t use hibernation or suspension modes to power down parts of the cluster to reduce electric load. Reboots are allowed only if the system fails or hangs up. Going over the limit is a bad thing and will result in a warning to the team and possible point deduction.

On the software side, teams can use any operating system, clustering or management software they desire, as long as the configuration will run the required workloads. The vast majority of teams run some flavor of Linux, although there were Russian teams in 2010 and 2011 who competed with a Microsoft software stack, and they won highest LINPACK at SC11 in (appropriately enough) Seattle.

Compelling competition

Speaking for myself (and probably untold millions of maniacal fans worldwide), these competitions are highly compelling affairs. The one thing I hear time and time again from students is, “I learned so much from this.” They’re not just referring to what they’ve learned about HPC systems and clusters, but what they’ve learned about science and research. And they’re so eager and enthusiastic when talking about this new knowledge and what they can do with it – it’s contagious.

For some participants, the SCC is a life-changing event. It’s prompted some students to embrace or change their career plans – sometimes radically. These events have led to internships and even full-time career-track jobs.

For many of the undergraduates, this is their first exposure to the world of supercomputing and the careers available in industry or research. Watching them begin to realize the range of opportunities open to them is very gratifying; it even penetrates a few layers of my typically cynical outlook on the world.

The schools sending the teams also realize great value from the contests. Several universities have used the SCC as a springboard to build a more robust computer science and HPC curriculums – sometimes building classes around the competition to help prepare their teams. The contests also give the schools an opportunity to highlight student achievement, regardless of whether or not they win.

Just being chosen to compete is an achievement. As these competitions receive more attention, the number of schools applying for a slot has increased. The most recent competition in China saw more than 300 teams from around the world vie for finals slots.

With all that said, there’s another reason I find these competitions so compelling: they’re just plain fun. The kids are all friendly and very personable, even when there’s a language barrier. They’re eager and full of energy. They definitely want to win, but it’s a good-spirited brand of competition. Almost every year we’ve seen examples of teams donating hardware to teams in need when there are shipping problems or when something breaks.

It’s that spirit, coupled with their eagerness to learn and their obvious enjoyment which really defines these events. And it’s quite a combination.

About the Author

Dan is one of the lead analysts at OrionX, building on his 15 years of experience as founder and principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group (GCG), a boutique IT research and consulting firm whose activities are now part of the OrionX offerings.

In addition to server, storage, and network technologies, Dan closely follows the Big Data, Cloud, and HPC markets. He is the go-to person for the coverage and analysis of the supercomputing industry’s Student Cluster Challenge.

Dan began his career at Sequent Computer, an early pioneer in highly scalable business systems. He was the inaugural lead for the successful server consolidation program at Sun Microsystems, and was at IBM in the strategically important mainframe and Power systems groups. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business with a focus on finance and marketing.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

GTC 2019: Chief Scientist Bill Dally Provides Glimpse into Nvidia Research Engine

March 22, 2019

Amid the frenzy of GTC this week – Nvidia’s annual conference showcasing all things GPU (and now AI) – William Dally, chief scientist and SVP of research, provided a brief but insightful portrait of Nvidia’s rese Read more…

By John Russell

ORNL Helps Identify Challenges of Extremely Heterogeneous Architectures

March 21, 2019

Exponential growth in classical computing over the last two decades has produced hardware and software that support lightning-fast processing speeds, but advancements are topping out as computing architectures reach thei Read more…

By Laurie Varma

Interview with 2019 Person to Watch Jim Keller

March 21, 2019

On the heels of Intel's reaffirmation that it will deliver the first U.S. exascale computer in 2021, which will feature the company's new Intel Xe architecture, we bring you our interview with our 2019 Person to Watch Jim Keller, head of the Silicon Engineering Group at Intel. Read more…

By HPCwire Editorial Team

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

HPE and Intel® Omni-Path Architecture: How to Power a Cloud

Learn how HPE and Intel® Omni-Path Architecture provide critical infrastructure for leading Nordic HPC provider’s HPCFLOW cloud service.

powercloud_blog.jpgFor decades, HPE has been at the forefront of high-performance computing, and we’ve powered some of the fastest and most robust supercomputers in the world. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

Insurance: Where’s the Risk?

Insurers are facing extreme competitive challenges in their core businesses. Property and Casualty (P&C) and Life and Health (L&H) firms alike are highly impacted by the ongoing globalization, increasing regulation, and digital transformation of their client bases. Read more…

What’s New in HPC Research: TensorFlow, Buddy Compression, Intel Optane & More

March 20, 2019

In this bimonthly feature, HPCwire highlights newly published research in the high-performance computing community and related domains. From parallel programming to exascale to quantum computing, the details are here. Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

GTC 2019: Chief Scientist Bill Dally Provides Glimpse into Nvidia Research Engine

March 22, 2019

Amid the frenzy of GTC this week – Nvidia’s annual conference showcasing all things GPU (and now AI) – William Dally, chief scientist and SVP of research, Read more…

By John Russell

At GTC: Nvidia Expands Scope of Its AI and Datacenter Ecosystem

March 19, 2019

In the high-stakes race to provide the AI life-cycle solution of choice, three of the biggest horses in the field are IBM, Intel and Nvidia. While the latter is only a fraction of the size of its two bigger rivals, and has been in business for only a fraction of the time, Nvidia continues to impress with an expanding array of new GPU-based hardware, software, robotics, partnerships and... Read more…

By Doug Black

Nvidia Debuts Clara AI Toolkit with Pre-Trained Models for Radiology Use

March 19, 2019

AI’s push into healthcare got a boost yesterday with Nvidia’s release of the Clara Deploy AI toolkit which includes 13 pre-trained models for use in radiolo Read more…

By John Russell

It’s Official: Aurora on Track to Be First US Exascale Computer in 2021

March 18, 2019

The U.S. Department of Energy along with Intel and Cray confirmed today that an Intel/Cray supercomputer, "Aurora," capable of sustained performance of one exaf Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Why Nvidia Bought Mellanox: ‘Future Datacenters Will Be…Like High Performance Computers’

March 14, 2019

“Future datacenters of all kinds will be built like high performance computers,” said Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang during a phone briefing on Monday after Nvidia revealed scooping up the high performance networking company Mellanox for $6.9 billion. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Oil and Gas Supercloud Clears Out Remaining Knights Landing Inventory: All 38,000 Wafers

March 13, 2019

The McCloud HPC service being built by Australia’s DownUnder GeoSolutions (DUG) outside Houston is set to become the largest oil and gas cloud in the world th Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Quick Take: Trump’s 2020 Budget Spares DoE-funded HPC but Slams NSF and NIH

March 12, 2019

U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget request, released yesterday, proposes deep cuts in many science programs but seems to spare HPC funding by the Depar Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia Wins Mellanox Stakes for $6.9 Billion

March 11, 2019

The long-rumored acquisition of Mellanox came to fruition this morning with GPU chipmaker Nvidia’s announcement that it has purchased the high-performance net Read more…

By Doug Black

Quantum Computing Will Never Work

November 27, 2018

Amid the gush of money and enthusiastic predictions being thrown at quantum computing comes a proposed cold shower in the form of an essay by physicist Mikhail Read more…

By John Russell

The Case Against ‘The Case Against Quantum Computing’

January 9, 2019

It’s not easy to be a physicist. Richard Feynman (basically the Jimi Hendrix of physicists) once said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourse Read more…

By Ben Criger

ClusterVision in Bankruptcy, Fate Uncertain

February 13, 2019

ClusterVision, European HPC specialists that have built and installed over 20 Top500-ranked systems in their nearly 17-year history, appear to be in the midst o Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Why Nvidia Bought Mellanox: ‘Future Datacenters Will Be…Like High Performance Computers’

March 14, 2019

“Future datacenters of all kinds will be built like high performance computers,” said Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang during a phone briefing on Monday after Nvidia revealed scooping up the high performance networking company Mellanox for $6.9 billion. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel Reportedly in $6B Bid for Mellanox

January 30, 2019

The latest rumors and reports around an acquisition of Mellanox focus on Intel, which has reportedly offered a $6 billion bid for the high performance interconn Read more…

By Doug Black

Looking for Light Reading? NSF-backed ‘Comic Books’ Tackle Quantum Computing

January 28, 2019

Still baffled by quantum computing? How about turning to comic books (graphic novels for the well-read among you) for some clarity and a little humor on QC. The Read more…

By John Russell

Contract Signed for New Finnish Supercomputer

December 13, 2018

After the official contract signing yesterday, configuration details were made public for the new BullSequana system that the Finnish IT Center for Science (CSC Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

It’s Official: Aurora on Track to Be First US Exascale Computer in 2021

March 18, 2019

The U.S. Department of Energy along with Intel and Cray confirmed today that an Intel/Cray supercomputer, "Aurora," capable of sustained performance of one exaf Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

SC 18 Virtual Booth Video Tour

Advania @ SC18 AMD @ SC18
ASRock Rack @ SC18
DDN Storage @ SC18
HPE @ SC18
IBM @ SC18
Lenovo @ SC18 Mellanox Technologies @ SC18
NVIDIA @ SC18
One Stop Systems @ SC18
Oracle @ SC18 Panasas @ SC18
Supermicro @ SC18 SUSE @ SC18 TYAN @ SC18
Verne Global @ SC18

Deep500: ETH Researchers Introduce New Deep Learning Benchmark for HPC

February 5, 2019

ETH researchers have developed a new deep learning benchmarking environment – Deep500 – they say is “the first distributed and reproducible benchmarking s Read more…

By John Russell

IBM Quantum Update: Q System One Launch, New Collaborators, and QC Center Plans

January 10, 2019

IBM made three significant quantum computing announcements at CES this week. One was introduction of IBM Q System One; it’s really the integration of IBM’s Read more…

By John Russell

IBM Bets $2B Seeking 1000X AI Hardware Performance Boost

February 7, 2019

For now, AI systems are mostly machine learning-based and “narrow” – powerful as they are by today's standards, they're limited to performing a few, narro Read more…

By Doug Black

The Deep500 – Researchers Tackle an HPC Benchmark for Deep Learning

January 7, 2019

How do you know if an HPC system, particularly a larger-scale system, is well-suited for deep learning workloads? Today, that’s not an easy question to answer Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Reflections and (Mostly Hopeful) Predictions

December 19, 2018

So much ‘spaghetti’ gets tossed on walls by the technology community (vendors and researchers) to see what sticks that it is often difficult to peer through Read more…

By John Russell

Arm Unveils Neoverse N1 Platform with up to 128-Cores

February 20, 2019

Following on its Neoverse roadmap announcement last October, Arm today revealed its next-gen Neoverse microarchitecture with compute and throughput-optimized si Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Move Over Lustre & Spectrum Scale – Here Comes BeeGFS?

November 26, 2018

Is BeeGFS – the parallel file system with European roots – on a path to compete with Lustre and Spectrum Scale worldwide in HPC environments? Frank Herold Read more…

By John Russell

France to Deploy AI-Focused Supercomputer: Jean Zay

January 22, 2019

HPE announced today that it won the contract to build a supercomputer that will drive France’s AI and HPC efforts. The computer will be part of GENCI, the Fre Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This