Student Cluster Season Opener: ASC19

By Dan Olds

April 22, 2019

Calling all computer sports fans! Now hear this:  The 2019 Student Cluster Competition season is officially underway with the beginning of the ASC19 event on Tuesday, April 22nd.

For you millions of student cluster competition fans, this day has been a long time coming. It heralds another exciting year of competition in the Big Three events (ASC, ISC, and SC) and we’ll be tracking all the triumphs, tragedies, ‘should have beens’, and ‘could have beens’ along the way, as usual.

For those of you who are just starting to follow student clustering, where the hell have you been? This is the most exciting and interesting computer sport. Ever. Teams of university undergraduate students design, build, and tune their sponsor provided clusters, then compete live against other teams running real-world HPC applications and benchmarks. Here’s a link with maybe too much information on the competitions and how they work.

At the ASC competition, there will be awards for the Highest Linpack, most innovative solutions, usually referred to as the E-Prize, the Silver Medal Award, and, of course, the Overall Championship. And there are more than bragging rights at stake:  there’s a total of $36,000 of prize money to be won.

More than 300 universities completed the grueling tests to get into the finals, but only 20 teams could be chosen.  competed to get into the finals, but only 20 teams were chosen. This six percent acceptance rate is about on par with both Stanford and Harvard in the US.

So let’s meet the teams that will be competing at this year’s ASC19 tournament. First up, let’s look at the teams who have the greatest challenge ahead of them – the teams who are competing for the first time…

Jinan University:  While we don’t know a lot about their clustering ability, we have dug up some facts to give you a little knowledge about this school. It Is arguably one of the oldest universities in China, tracing their history back to the 1600’s. It’s located in Guangzhou, in the Tianhe District (yes, the same Tianhe as the former fastest supercomputer in the world). With more than 50,000 students and nearly 2,000 faculty, it’s not a small school by world standards, but probably a mid-sized university by Chinese standards. It’s ranked as one of the 800-1000 best universities in the world, which is not too shabby. They also have a great motto:  Loyalty, Sincerity, Integrity and Respect….I would add “Mastery of InfiniBand” to make that motto complete. Good luck, Team Jinan!

Shanxi University:  Was established in 1902 in Taiyuan, Shanxi, China in the northwestern part of the country. The school has 22,000 students, with half undergrads, and the rest postgraduate and doctoral students. Shanxi has a serious reputation it comes quantum physics, molecular chemistry, and computer science. The school is ranked as the 6th best university in Northern China and has a worldwide ranking of 351-400. They also weigh in with a killer motto:   Seek the truth and kindness, respect and emulate the excellent. I might add “respect the power of MPI” to that, just sayin’.

Southern University of Science and Technology:  SUSTech, as they’re known, is an experimental university for China. Opened in 2011, SUSTech has been designed with education reform in mind and is viewed as the leader of the new breed of higher ed institutions in China. The hard work involved in bringing a new and innovative university online is paying off. SUSTech was the youngest universities ranked in the Times Higher Education Rankings, receiving a ranking of 301-350 against other universities worldwide, which is remarkable. We’ll see if their cluster competition skills measure up to that lofty ranking.

Sungkyunkwan University:  This university has one hell of a story to tell. Founded in South Korea in the year…wait for it..1398 by the Joseon Dynasty in Seoul, this school has been cranking out students for 640 years. They maintain a enviable academic reputation as well, ranking 100th best university in the world according to the QS rankings and 82nd according to the Time Higher Ed rankings. The school is strong in the sciences, but it is unknows if their prowess extends to Student Clustering….we will know very soon if Team Seoul has the goods when it comes to HPC.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong:  The school, known as CUHK, was founded in 1963 in Hong Kong (which makes sense, right?) through a federation of three other colleges. The school has nine disciplines and operates in both English and Chinese. Their faculty has garnered some prizes over the years, including four Nobel prizes, a Turing Award, Fields Medal and Veblin Prize. All they need now is a golden trophy that comes from winning a Student Cluster Competition. Maybe this is their year?

University of Electronic Science and Technology of China: This university, UESTC for short, was formed in 1956 as the Chenddu Institute of Radio Engineering. It’s had a lot of attention from the government, first by being included in the Project 211 initiative to advance China’s higher education system. They were also included in the latter Project 985 which had the goal of developing select Chinese universities into worldwide powerhouses. While I don’t know how student cluster competitions fit into either Project 211 or Project 985, they have to be close to the top, right? What more could distinguish a university than winning the coveted ASC Student Cluster Competition crown?

Experienced Teams Return to the Arena

Now that we’ve discussed the newbies, let’s take a gander at the returning veteran university teams competing at ASC19…

Fuzhou University:  This is the second outing for the Fuzhou team. Their debut competition was last year at ASC18. The team finished middle of the pack in that competition but is looking for better things this year.

Peking University:  Peking University is known to some as “The Harvard of China”, and is, I think, the arch-rival to perennial cluster competition power Tsinghua – which is known to some as “The MIT of China.” Peking has competed at two previous SC competitions in the US, coming in fourth on one occasion. As you’ll see in the team interview, Team Peking is quietly confident in their chances, and, as a bonus, quite a bit of fun too.

Dalian University of Technology: Dalian is the home team this year and burdened with defending their the clustering reputation of their city. Dalian is a modestly sized (in Chinese terms) city of around six million people located on the coast. It’s a great town with fantastic food and architecture to match. This is Dalian’s third ASC cluster competition and I would imagine that this year they’re envisioning adding the ASC19 cluster competition trophy to their school trophy case. We’ll see what happens.

University of Tartu:  This is the third time this Estonian team has competed for cluster glory. Their previous attempts were at ISC events in Germany, so they’re no strangers to the pressure of international competition. While the team hasn’t won a major award (yet), they have become a part of Student Cluster Competition lore. Their ISC15 cluster was the first to have human blood as an additional component. The team was sporting a large number of small servers in an attempt to beat the power cap, however the power supplies for their servers didn’t make it to Germany. The team immediately swarmed Frankfurt and bought up every PC power supply available, returned to the event hall, and proceeded to make their own cables. The team leader, who is the coach of the current Tartu team, cut himself quite badly while wielding a razor knife. He refused medical treatment until after the cables were cut and adapted to fuel their cluster – now that’s the definition of “taking one for the team.”

Taiyuan University of Technology: Taiyuan is competing in their fifth ASC competition. In the past, they’ve finished middle of the pack, even when hosting the event at their university. They were among the leaders in Linpack during their past runs but didn’t quite have a high enough to make the podium. Maybe the change of scenery and the cool sea air of Dalian will turn their luck around.

University of Warsaw:  Team Warsaw has rapidly become a team of steely eyed veteran cluster competitors. They’ve answered the bell at every major competition, including the ASC, ISC, and SC events. Unfortunately, they’ve been snake-bit, as we say in the US, with hardware problems dogging their efforts. But they’ve been gaining experience and the team is definitely becoming more skilled in both hardware set up and software tuning. This is a team to watch, I think.

Beihang University: This is the fifth ASC tourney for Team Beihang. They’ve built themselves a solid record over the years, winning a Silver Medal at ASC17, which punched their ticket for a trip to the Frankfurt ISC cluster competition finals. They’ve also been near the leaders in Linpack in past years, but haven’t medaled. To me, they seem like a team on the brink of moving into the group of elite competitors. We’ll see what happens in Dalian.

Sun Yat-Sen University: Sun Yat-Sen is a six-time competitor at the ASC events. When the event was hosted  at their university back in 2014, Team Sun Yat-Sen nabbed the Linpack trophy and set a Linpack record that lasted, well, only for a few months – technology marches on and all that. So what are the Sun Yat-Senners bringing to the table this year? Can they return to past glory and plant some more trophies on their shelf? We’ll see.

Universidad EAFIT:  Team EAFIT has quietly become one of the more experienced institutions in the cluster competition game. The school has previous competed at five events, one ASC, one ISC, and three SC tourneys. While they haven’t finished on the podium, they’re one of those teams that never gives up, no matter what problems they encounter. Their perseverance is what the Student Cluster Competition is all about and it brings great honor to their faculty and university.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University:  Team Shanghai is one of the powerhouse Chinese cluster competition teams. This is their eighth major cluster competition and they’ve built themselves a solid record with two Silver Awards at ASC, which earned them two trips to the German ISC competition, where they finished as high as third. Their current coach is a four-time Shanghai cluster team member who, after his graduation, has taken over the reins of Team Shanghai. He was a hard charger when he was leading Team Shanghai as a student, now we’ll see what kind of team he can build as a coach. I’m expecting some innovative approaches and to see this team continue to be a strong contender.

Huazhong University of Science and Technology:  Team Huazhong is marking their ninth entry into a major cluster competition. The team won the ASC Overall Championship when the event was held on their home court in 2016. They also took a ASC Silver Medal have competed twice at the German ISC event. They’re a solid team that is looking for their chance to join the elite tier of cluster competitors, maybe this will be their year.

Friedrich-Alexander-University: Team FAU is a highly experienced team of clusterers (Microsoft is saying that “clusterers” isn’t a word, I’m going with it anyway). This will be their tenth major competition – the team participated in five SC events, two ISC tourneys, and this will be their third ASC. They’ve won two Linpack awards at ISC, setting records both times, and a Bronze Medal at SC. Unfortunately, the team didn’t bring their trunk of GPUs to China, so don’t look for them to establish a new LINPACK record here – but they still have a good shot at ASC19 gold, so don’t count them out.

National Tsing Hua University: Team NTHU was a power back in the early days (starting in 2007) of the SC cluster competitions, scoring two SC Overall Championships, four Linpack crowns, a Silver Medal, and a couple of Bronze Medals. The school has been to a grand total of 15 competitions, including ASC19. They haven’t visited the winner’s podium recently, which means they’re about due for a standout performance. This could be the year.

Tsinghua University:  Team Tsinghua is the most dominant cluster competition team today. No question about it. They’ve been to 16 international events and compiled an amazing record. They’ve won four Gold Medals at ASC, four Gold Medals at ISC, two Gold Medals at SC. Moreover, they are the first and only team to win the Student Cluster Competition Triple Crown, winning all three international competitions in a single year. And they did it twice. Everyone is gunning for Tsinghua, which means the team is under a lot of pressure to keep up their winning ways. This team is younger than their veteran teams of past years, will they be able to continue their dominance over the rest of the international field? ASC19 is the first test of this team, we’ll see what they are made of when the smoke from ASC19 has cleared.

Phew, that finishes out our comprehensive look at the ASC19 field. In coming articles we’ll be looking at the team configurations, meeting the team via video interviews, analyzing the applications they’ll be running, and attending the grueling judge interviews that will make even the most self-assured student clusterer shake in their boots. We’ll also provide all of the news and results that you Student Cluster Competition fanatics crave. Stay tuned…..

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