Cluster Comp Coach Chat

By Dan Olds

June 23, 2020

In our continuing effort to provide the most comprehensive ISC20 Student Cluster Competition coverage possible, we’ve interviewed coaches from several of the teams in order to get their perspective on the challenges arising from having to advise a team remotely. In these brief interviews, the coaches open up and give us a glimpse of what it’s like to mentor these students through one of the most grueling cluster competitions yet.


Team CHPC: Coaches David Macleod and Nyameko Lisa give us a look behind the scenes on the South African front. According to them, the secret behind Team CHPC’s success can be boiled down to one word: preparation. They discuss how they take about a year to mold and train each team. David also shares his technique for ‘reading the board’ when it comes to power consumption and estimating how other teams are faring vs. his team. Highly interesting stuff.

 

Team EPCC:  Coaches Xu Guo and Juan Rogriguez Herrera join me for another edition of “Coach Chat” on the second day of the competition. Coach Xu has been the long-time head coach of Team EPCC with Juan assisting for the past two competitions. The coaches discussed how communication between the team and the coaches has been a big challenge in this virtual (and quarantined) event. We also talked about the challenges arising from each team using the same cluster and how this might impact the scores. One thing that they and their team really miss is the interaction with the other teams and coaches that you get from a live competition.

 

Team Hamburg:  Michael Kuhn and Jannek Squar take a few minutes for a quick interview. Michael has coached the team for the last six years with Jannek joining the roster for the last three competitions. Like the other teams, Hamburg would much rather have a big cluster of their own, but they’re making the best of the ‘one cluster for all’ situation. One of the problems facing Hamburg is team turnover, having to start over with new students as former students graduate and go professional. My suggestion that they tell students to eschew formal education and just go pro in clusters falls flat. We finish up by talking about their advice for cluster competition coaches – primarily, the importance of having a solid team captain.

 

Team ETH Zurich:  Assistant coach Hussein Harake takes a few minutes to discuss how Team ETH has been coping with the virtual competition. Their team is fortunate in that every member has participated in the ISC19 and SC19 cluster competitions. This experience helps as it lets them know what to expect and how to handle the pressure. We discuss the team’s experience at SC and how they had to scramble to find misdelivered rack at the last minute.

 

Team Heidelberg:  We have Askel Alpay on video and Sabine Richling on audio only – ah, the joys of using Zoom, right? The Heidelberg team has mixed levels of big-time cluster competition experience, along with being at different points in their formal education. The coaches also discuss the wide range of HPC-related courses available at Heidelberg, I was pretty surprised at the sophistication and depth of their curriculum.

 

Team Tsinghua:  Jidong Zhai and Wentao Han are the coaches of the most successful Student Cluster Competition in history. They have both been guiding the team for the last five years with nary a stumble in the rankings. Their team this year is a mixture of experienced competitors with more new players than typical. We talk about Tsinghua’s secret sauce – why do they keep winning? My theory is that they have a better ability to control their power than most other teams with deeper knowledge of the systems. But that doesn’t matter this year, since power control doesn’t matter. I ask the question “do you have any secrets on how to beat Tsinghua in a competition.” They respond that practice and preparation are the keys to winning. Typically, Tsinghua spends a lot of time preparing for a competition, usually starting when the applications for the next competition is released. But you have to consider that this team competes in every competition, so they gain a lot of practice and experience on the field of play.

 

Team Warsaw:  We met with team coaches Maciej Szpindler and Marcin Semeniuk and talk about how their students are disappointed in not getting the full Student Cluster Competition experience this year. Without a physical competition, the students don’t get a feeling for how they’re doing and can’t pick up knowledge from the other competitors. Compounding this isolation is that the Warsaw students are also loaded down with final exams and other academic tasks. I also gave these coaches the idea that they should tell their students to no show their final exams, give up on formal academics, and just concentrate on winning ISC20. They didn’t buy it either.

 

Team UPC:  This is the largest coaching contingent I have ever seen in a Student Cluster Competition. Fully six coaches devoted to the six student UPC team. What is wonderful to see is that four out of the six mentors were former Student Cluster Competition participants with Team UPC. In the video we get to meet each of the coaches and discuss how the teams had to shift at the last minute from a system based on their beloved Arm processor to an x86 box located in Singapore. Not an enviable position, but the feeling I get from this team and their coaches is that they have the team cohesion to overcome nearly any challenge – it’s a very close knit group.

 

Interviewing the coaches has pulled back the veil and given us a glimpse into what it takes to build and mentor a Student Cluster Competition team, particularly in these isolated, virus-ridden, times. It’s a difficult job, but they’ve pulled it off. They deserve kudos and recognition for what they’ve given to these teams and to the millions (and millions) of Student Cluster Competition aficionados worldwide.

Stay tuned for more ISC20 Student Cluster competition updates!

 

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