ASC18 Cluster Competition Kick-Off!

By Dan Olds

May 5, 2018

The city of Nanchang, China, a small hamlet of 5.2 million people, is alive with of excitement this week. Why? Because it is the host city for the 2018 ASC Student Cluster Competition, the largest student cluster competition the world has ever seen and the first event on the 2018 Cluster Competition calendar. More than 300 universities vied for entry into this prestigious event, but only 20 teams made the final cut.

For the few of you who aren’t ravenously following the world of student cluster competitions, here’s a detailed primer on what they’re all about. For those of you who are “quick start” types, I’ll bottom line you. A student cluster competition is where teams of university undergrads compete to design, build, and optimize their own supercomputer clusters. The only restrictions are that they have to use parts that are available on the open market and their clusters have to operate under the 3,000 watt power cap.

The students then run HPC benchmarks and HPC applications to see which team has built the fastest cluster and has done the best job optimizing the code. In the ASC competitions, lead sponsor Inspur generously provides the teams with servers and other cluster fixins’ (technical term for components).

Nvidia, through their Shanghai-based Chinese partner LeadTek, is another competition sponsor and is staking four V100 GPUs to teams that desire them (which is approximately ALL the teams). While four V100 GPUs are pretty powerful, some teams have brought additional accelerators to provide a bit more crank to their cluster.

Other sponsors include the HPC-AI Advisory Council, Microsoft, the Asian Supercomputer Community, and our own HPCwire.

We have a powerhouse slate of competitors this year, including former champions and grizzled veteran teams, both looking to raise the golden trophy of victory. We also have several newbie teams that are getting their first taste of the grueling grind that is international student cluster competitions. All of the student teams will be tested to their absolute limits…and maybe beyond.

Let’s take a look at the teams….

Beihang University: this isn’t the first student cluster rodeo for the team from Beihang. They’ve competed in three previous ASC competitions but have yet to take home the Overall Championship trophy. But they did beat the rest of the field like a drum on the mystery application (Saturne) at ASC17 last year, so maybe that gives them something to build on. We’ll see.

Friedrich Alexander University: The plucky Germans from FAU are back for another run at cluster glory here at ASC18. Last year’s team ran into some interconnect trouble – mainly because they didn’t know the ins and outs of InfiniBand. They assure me that those problems are behind them and they’re up to speed on InfiniBand for this competition. Keep in mind that this FAU team dropped the mic in Frankfurt after laying down a blistering record-breaking LINPACK run at ISC17, could they do it again in Nanchang?

Fuzhou University: We don’t know a lot about Fuzhou U, this is their first appearance on the big league international student clustering stage. The university is in the city of Fuzhou in the Fujian province and has a total student population of 29,200. They have a rich curriculum of science and engineering, which is definitely a plus in this competition, but we don’t know anything about their clustering skills – particularly when under pressure. Of course, all of you remember another unknown, Weifang University, who pounded a blistering 31.7 TF/s LINPACK score, a world record at the time. The point is that newbies have a chance to make history in these competitions – they’re all equal when the flag falls.

Hong Kong Baptist: This is the third time the Hong Kong Baptist team has competed at an ASC event. They’re known to be rabid LINPACK competitors, and have come close to capturing the LINPACK crown. This is a team that’s full of personality and is very fun to speak with; I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them. Their skills have steadily increased with each competition and maybe this is the year they break through to the top echelon.

Huazhong Agricultural University: The HAU Aggies are another first time team. I think they hail from the city of Wuhan, but Wikipedia disagrees and pegs them in Hubei, China. While we don’t know a lot about HAU and their HPC prowess, we do know that the school is nationally ranked #1 in horticulture and #2 in crop science, vet medicine, and animal science. I don’t know if this will help them in the competition, but it will give them something to talk about with the Texas A & M team.

Kasetsart University:  Kasetsart is the first school from Thailand to compete in any international level cluster competition. While their cluster skills are a mystery, we can tell you a little bit about the school. Kasetsart University is located near Bangkok, Thailand and was founded in 1943. The school is huge, with 74,604 students – making it the largest university in the competition and maybe the largest university I’ve ever heard of. It was Thailand’s first agricultural university and is rated 29th in the world when it comes to agriculture and forestry. I need to get them, Huazhong Ag and Texas A&M together for dinner, they have a lot in common with their agricultural roots (so to speak).

Nanchang University: As usual, a local university has thrown their hat into the ring for this year’s ASC crown. Nanchang is a first time competitor, so we don’t know what kind of cluster game they have. However, we do know that it’s a biggish university with more than 40,000 students. They also have a huge medical school and manage more than 10 hospitals in the region. I can also testify that their English language program is top notch. I’ve already had experience with several of their student translator volunteers, including one who rescued me from being hopelessly lost in the city, so I’m a big fan. You’ll meet them when I start recording videos and use them to translate for the Chinese teams.

National Tsing Hua University:  NTHU is no stranger to student cluster competitions and has notched their share of wins too. If my voluminous records are correct, this will be the 11th competition for Team Taiwan. Their pedigree stretches all the way back to the very first Student Cluster Competition in 2007 at SC07. They took home the first (and second) Highest LINPACK crowns, and also won Overall Championships at SC10 and SC11. They’re definitely a team to watch at ASC18.

NUDT: is also a team to watch in this year’s event. NUDT (which stands for National University of Defense Technology) has participated in nine international Student Cluster Competitions. They’ve been pegged as LINPACK jockeys due to their success in achieving Highest LINPACK at three big time cluster fests. They’ve been a little quiet lately, but they definitely are an upper echelon team, so we’ll see what they do this year at ASC18.

Qinghai University: is yet another newbie to the world of high stakes student clustering. The university is located in Xining in the Qinghai province in Western China. The school has about 6,000 students and is one of the leading universities in the area. They have programs in a lot of the sciences, including computer science, which will come in handy for the cluster competition team.

Saint Petersburg State University:  this is the third time around at ASC for the St. Petersburg State team. Their team last year was a lot of fun, particularly at the end of competition gala. Any team that can both drive a supercomputer cluster and be great fun at the after party is a team to be reckoned with. I’m looking forward to seeing their performance this year; they’re definitely on an upward swing.

Shanghai Jaio Tong University:  has participated in seven international student cluster competitions. This team is a player, having won at ASC14, and come in second at a previous competition. They typically have very well rounded teams that are going for the Overall Championship rather than just aiming for LINPACK. I think they have a pretty good chance to excel at ASC18 based on their previous results, but will withhold my final judgement until the video interview.

Shanghai Technical University:  a new team and, really, a brand new university, relatively speaking. ShanghaiTech, as they’re known, was established 2013 by a partnership between the Chinese Academy of Science and local Shanghai government. The school is also the smallest institution in our competition this year with only 1,200 undergrads and 1,500 grad students. I had a long conversation with the coach of their cluster team and was surprised to learn that the admission process to ShanghaiTech was as rigorous as any elite school in the western world. Each student is personally interviewed at least once by a faculty member, has to submit detailed recommendations, along with, of course, test scores and a long questionnaire. The school is striving to find excellent students who can thrive at the university and in the world outside the school. But right now, all that matters is how well they can drive a cluster and optimize apps. I’ll be keeping an eye on them; this could be a very interesting team.

Southeast University:  represents another elite university in the competition. This is a highly selective school, normally only admitting only the top 2% of high school students who apply to its undergraduate programs. This will be the second time competing at ASC. Although the team finished in the middle of the pack in their first outing, I think they learned a lot through the experience and might be poised to make a move into the upper ranks.

Sun Yat-Sen University: a perennial competitor at ASC events, Sun Yat-Sen has seen some glory in their past outings, having nailed a Highest LINPACK award when the competition was held in their hometown of Guangzhou. The team has won some other application awards along the way, but the Overall Championship has eluded them so far. Maybe this is their year?

Taiyuan University of Technology: has flown under the radar during their four previous ASC competitions. They took home an award for Best Presentation at ASC14, but haven’t been to the winner’s podium since then. They’re a strong team, but haven’t had that special combination of skill and luck that makes a champion. However, they have the experience now and maybe that will make the difference at ASC18.

Texas A & M University: This is the very first cluster competition for the Texas A & M Aggies. The state of Texas has a glorious cluster competition history, dating back to the powerhouse teams from UT Austin who achieved an unheard of three-peat in SC12, SC13, and SC14. But this doesn’t help the Aggies, who seemed to be struggling a bit during the buildup phase of the competition on Saturday. However, as the day wore on, they seemed to find their feet, and also found four additional nodes – which can’t hurt, right?

Tsinghua University: When it comes to Student Cluster Competitions, the teams from Tsinghua are steely eyed killers. They’re like Larry Bird at the three point line in the final second with the team down by 2 points. Team Tsinghua has competed at 12 international competitions, including ASC, ISC, and SC. In 2015 they went undefeated, taking home the championship hardware for each of the major cluster challenges – an astounding achievement that has since to be duplicated. They’re not only great cluster drivers, but they also make the extra effort to present their results in a very clear and concise manner – which scores points with the judges. This is the team to beat at ASC18.

University of Miskolc: also known as Team Hungary or “The Pride of Hungary” has competed at every ASC event starting in 2014. While they haven’t captured any of the major awards, the team is steadily improving and getting a lot out of the competition. Last year, the team was kind of behind the eight ball due to a lack of accelerators, but this year will be different. With Nvidia and LeadTek providing each team with four screamingly fast V100 GPUs, Team Hungary will see a more level playing field. Let’s see what happens.

Zhejiang University: This is the third ASC cluster competition for Team Zhejiang. At ASC16, the team took home the Highest LINPACK award and also beat the field on the HPCG benchmark. The team was pushing a four node box that was chock full of GPUs, a perfect configuration for LINPACK glory. We’ll see how they’re configured this year, whether they’re aiming for a LINPACK win again or looking for an Overall Championship trophy.

So that’s the rundown of teams in this year’s ASC18 Cluster Competition. We’re live on the ground here in Nanchang and will bring you all of the action from ASC. In upcoming articles we’ll meet the teams through the miracle of video so you can size them up for yourselves. We’ll also take a look at the applications they’ll be battling through, show you their final system configurations, and keep you up to date with every development in this intense clash of clusters. Stay tuned…

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