Meet the ISC18 Cluster Teams: Up Close & Personal

By Dan Olds

July 6, 2018

It’s time to meet your ISC18 Student Cluster Competition teams. While I was able to film them live at the ISC show, the trick was finding time to edit the videos, render them, deal with the flu, and finally get them uploaded to the web. That’s all done now, so it’s time to show you readers who’s who in the competition.

We learned a lot about the teams via their videos. One team makes a dramatic and heart rending plea to a big-time vendor. A member on another team reveals that competing in the cluster event is all part of his master plan to seize power in his department once the competition is over. The stories are both compelling and entertaining.

Heading down the list in alphabetical order….

Team South Africa (CHPC) is competing for the sixth time at ISC. In that time, they’ve built an enviable record of three gold and two silver medals – which is astounding. The team this year is a laid-back bunch. According to their coaches, it can take some time to get them started up and running. On the plus side, they’re plenty smart. In the video, we meet the team and learn a bit about what they’re all about. We also discuss how Tsinghua is their arch-enemy (in a cluster competition friendly sense) and how the CHPC kids have to get LINPACK working on their GPUs in order to have a shot at matching them.

Federal University of Parana (Brazil) is a first time competitor at ISC, or any cluster competition. They are a plucky bunch, wielding a non-accelerated CPU-only cluster against teams sporting as many as 16 GPUs. As we discuss in the video, they have an uphill climb ahead of them. We also give one kid a hard time for having to look at his name tag in order to introduce himself. I try to give them an inspirational speech to finish out the video, but it was only so-so in terms of quality since I hadn’t gotten up to my full cluster competition caffeine load for that day.

Fredrich Alexander University (Germany) is a long-time veteran of cluster competitions both foreign and domestic. In their seven previous appearances, the team has taken home the Highest LINPACK trophy, marking the first time a home team at ISC has nabbed a major award. As you’ll see in the video, one of the members of the FAU team is looking to parlay his competition experience into lordship over his department’s HPC cluster. This is his first step on the path to departmental power – he who controls the machine, controls who can use it and for how long…insert evil laugh here. We also discuss their quest to return the LINPACK crown to Germany, psychological warfare in the cluster competition, and other interesting topics.

Kasetsart University (Thailand) is participating in their third competition. They’re returning to action after an appearance in the 2018 ASC Finals, so they’re fairly fresh. When we catch up with the team, they’re very busy working on their benchmarking code, so we don’t have a chance to talk to the whole team. The team is running a dual node cluster with eight NVIDIA P100 GPUs, certainly enough firepower to give them a fighting chance against the other teams.

Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) is coming off a couple of a championship turns at the SC17 Student Cluster Competition. They won both the Overall Championship and the Highest LINPACK award, a rare feat. They’re looking to add some more trophies to the campus trophy case with this appearance at ISC18. Team Singapore knows the game, they’ve been in six major competitions, and now they’ve tasted the sweet nectar of victory from the golden chalice of glory. Can they do it again? Can anyone stop them from doing it again?

ShanghaiTech University is the school that no one expected to be here. They entered the ASC18 competition unheralded – a new university founded in 2013 with an entirely untested cluster team. No one figured on ShanghaiTech to finish second at ASC, which put them into the ISC18 finals. They’re running a more compact, yet more powerful cluster this time around – with four rather than five compute nodes and 16 rather than eight NVIDIA V100 GPUs. When we catch up with them for the video, they’ve already completed LINPACK (and achieved a respectable score) and are working on the applications. Definitely a team that is looking to join the elite cluster competition teams.

Tsinghua University (China) is a fixture in the top ranks of Student Cluster Competition teams. This is their 15th major competition, which is a record for a single school. They’ve also earned seven Gold Medals (Overall Championships), two Silvers, and two Bronze medals. Team Tsinghua looks to be in fine form when we’re filming the video – no problems, no big challenges. So how does Tsinghua do it? As near as I can tell, it’s their maniacal dedication to tuning and power control. They tend to know the applications better than most of their competitors and definitely know how to control their power usage better than most teams. Can they continue their winning streak?

UPC (Spain) positions themselves as “the weirdos who run ARM” at the Student Cluster Competition. Although they haven’t seen any major awards in their three previous attempts, the team is still committed to their architecture and isn’t looking to change. I’ve always figured an ARM platform can be competitive, but only if it has an accelerator punch. But that’s impossible, Team Spain explained to me, because NVIDIA hasn’t released an ARM-based version of CUDA. Sure, there’s an embedded version that works with Jetson, but the team needs a version that works with today’s full-throated ARM64 processors. Check out the video to hear the team explain the problem and plead with NVIDIA for the fix, it’s compelling video the whole family should see.

University of Edinburgh/EPCC (UK), with their dual node, 12 GPU cluster has their sights set firmly on taking back the LINPACK crown they won at ISC14. This is a pretty close-knit group and fun group as you’ll see from the video. It’s plain to see that they work well together and enjoy each other’s company. Will they triumph in their quest to bring the LINPACK trophy back to their rainy shore? Time will tell.

University of Hamburg (Germany) is the only competitor riding the Intel Phi chip in the competition. They’re sporting 10 of the CPU/accelerator hybrids, giving them a total of 680 CPU compute cores, the most in the competition. This fifth time competitor is still looking to find their way into the winner’s circle, but they’ve achieved steady improvement over the years. When we catch up to the team, they’re having some problems scaling some of the applications on their Phi’d up cluster. One interesting note: Team Hamburg had more operating system specialists (three) than any other cluster I’ve ever seen.

University of Heidelberg (Germany) is a first time competitor and the most local team, living merely 60 minutes from Frankfurt via train. When we catch up with the team, it’s Benchmark Day, and they’re working hard on their HPCC, HPCG, and HPL codes. Most of the kids on the team aren’t all that experienced in the HPC arts, but they’re learning fast. With their six node, eight GPU cluster, they have a competitive system, which helps, but it’s hard for a first time team to make a big impact in a major competition like ISC.

University of Warsaw is an enthusiastic team that is looking to rise in the rankings. This their third cluster rodeo, having competed at SC17 and ASC17 in the past. The team has some serious hardware, with three nodes and eight V100 GPUs. Team Warsaw is also sporting their first female member, who vows that she’ll provide enough intensity to drive the team over the top – but not so much intensity that the team will go over the 3,000 watt power cap. In the video, we get a chance to interview the various Team Warsaw advisors and coaches. They discuss how interest in Student Cluster Competitions is growing at the University of Warsaw that we’ll see more from the Warsaw teams in the future.

Phew, now that’s what I call an up close and personal introduction to the teams. We got all of that one. Next up, we’ll look at some of the results from the benchmarks…stay tuned.

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