ISC 2021’s Student Cluster Competition Winners Announced

By Oliver Peckham

July 2, 2021

Last year, there was an enormous upheaval: the Student Cluster Competition, which involves teams of students building computer clusters on the show floors of ISC and SC conferences, had to scramble to figure out a way to go virtual for ISC 2020. This year, at ISC 2021, it seemed almost second nature, with the conference even managing to pull a second remote supercomputer on which the virtual student teams could compete. Now, the conference is coming to a close, and the winners of the second virtual ISC Student Cluster Competition – and the tenth overall – have been revealed.

In virtual form, the Student Cluster Competition involves teams from all around the world working over the course of several weeks to complete a series of tasks, challenges and workloads on a shared computing cluster – or, in this case, two. Whereas the virtual 2020 Cluster Competition just utilized the Aspire 1 system supplied by the National Supercomputing Center (NSCC) in Singapore, the 2021 competition also included the Niagara cluster at the University of Toronto. (Aspire 1 has both CPU- and GPU-based nodes, while Niagara is a CPU-only Skylake cluster.)

In competing, they ran the gamut of challenges on the shared clusters: running micro-benchmarks, including the HPL (Linpack) benchmark, the HPC Challenge (HPCC) benchmark and the High-Performance Conjugate Gradients (HPCG) benchmark; running challenging HPC applications, including the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model, the GPAW atomic-scale quantum mechanical simulation model, the MetaHipMer2 model (which is a de novo metagenome short-read assembler) and the LAMMPS classical molecular dynamics code (which focuses on materials modeling); and, finally, a coding challenge, which this year focused on the MPI_alltoallv profiler, requiring teams to perform deep analysis on GPAW and WRF inputs, add heatmap support to the GUI and more.

13 teams competed in this gauntlet, hailing from seven locations around the world: the Centre for High Performance Computing, from South Africa; Tsinghua University, from China; National Tsinghua University, from Taiwan; the University of Science & Technology, from China; Nanyang Technological University, from Singapore; Sun Yat-Sen University, from China; Jinan University, from China; the University of Heidelberg, from Germany; the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, from Spain; ShanghaiTech University, from China; Xi’an Jiaotong University, from China; National Cheng Kung University, from Taiwan; and CIUK, from the UK.

In the end, of course, winners had to be crowned:

1st Place Award: Diablo team, Tsinghua University

2nd Place Award: Supernova team, Nanyang Technological University

3rd Place Award: Jinan team, Jinan University

Team Diablo. Image courtesy of the HPC-AI Advisory Council.

Tsinghua University’s win marks a continuation of its return to dominance for the institution, which has made dozens of appearances in the various major cluster competitions – including at the first-ever in Reno 2007 – and has now racked up eleven gold models, four silver medals and three bronze medals. At last year’s ISC, they placed third, though they placed first at SC20’s Student Cluster Competition a few months later. Tsinghua also took home the Linpack Award, which it had won once before at ISC.

The second-place winner, Nanyang Technological University, had appeared 13 times previously and earned one gold, three silvers (make it four!) and three Linpack awards. The third-place winner, Jinan University, is a bit of new blood in the competition: in Dan Olds’ words, Jinan “came out of nowhere to win the ASC21 competition, beating the ever-dominant Tsinghua University and a slate of 18 other strong competitors” prior to ISC21. This impressive showing will no doubt solidify them as a contender to watch in competitions to come.

Beyond the first- through third-place awards, a couple of other teams received recognition. The Honorable Mention went to the SYSU team from Sun Yat-Sen University. In the awards ceremony, the judges referenced how the SYSU team was very close to winning the Linpack award and “very, very, very close” to being the third-place winner. Furthermore, the SYSU team had a track record of excellence, winning gold once and Linpack twice. Finally, the Fan Favorite award went to the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, represented by a team called “NotOnlyFLOPs.”

The organizers identified several trends in the competition during the awards presentation. First, they reported, the results were incredibly close, with several winners eking out victories by “fractions of percentages.” 

More interestingly, perhaps, the teams this year seemed to surprise the organizers with their savvy. “There were some really amazing things that happened this year, with folks actually doing some bug fixes to some of the applications while they were running,” said Brian Sparks, a member of the HPC Advisory Council. “So I mean, these teams were incredible.” The representative from the CSC in Finland echoed this sentiment, reporting that teams had identified bugs in their code while running it during competition. Yet another organizer reported that “well over half of the teams” successfully configured the accelerator packages in LAMMPS, yielding “non-trivial performance boosts” – something he said “many LAMMPS users will never accomplish.”

“From my view, it’s a great experience,” said Gilad Shainer, chairman of the HPC-AI Advisory Council. “It helps to bring more education and understanding of high-performance computing and deep learning to the universities and students. And we see how that education actually helped the students in the future as they graduate and start to work or do research in different kinds of institutes. So it’s an exciting moment.”

Congratulations to the winners – and here’s looking forward to the SC20 Student Cluster Competition, with more news on the way soon!

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