ISC22 Cluster Competition: We’re back, baby!

By Dan Olds

June 6, 2022

Student clustering is back! At ISC22 we’ve had both a virtual competition and the first real in-person, on-premises, cluster competition in two years.

The HPC AI Advisory Council and the ISC22 organizers pulled out all the stops to get as many student teams involved as possible. In fact, with a total of 17 teams, this is the largest ISC cluster competition ever.

On the virtual side, the teams worked from mid-March to mid-May learning and optimizing their benchmarks and application codes on virtual clusters graciously donated by the University of Toronto, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, and the HPC AI Advisory Council.

The students will gain valuable experience as they work on two supercomputers that feature different architectures. On the University of Toronto Niagara systems, students will be using Intel Skylake CPU-only based clusters tied together by an InfiniBand EDR interconnect. The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center system is equipped with both CPU and GPU based clusters, giving the students an opportunity to get some experience with Nvidia V100 accelerators.

The HPC AI Advisory Council is also in the mix, giving students access to their 32-node DPU enhanced Thor cluster.

The teams participating in the virtual competition include many familiar names and even some former cluster competition champions:

CHPC, South Africa:  This team burst onto the scene at ISC13 and took home the Overall Championship. Since then, the team has earned three more gold medals, three silver medals, and one bronze finish.

CUIK, UK: Is in their second ISC competition, looking to move up the ranks.

EAFIT, Colombia:  This school has sent teams to a total of eight competitions including SC in the US and ASC in China, plus a couple of ISC appearances. They have won the ISC Fan Favorite Award at ISC and the Application Innovation Award at ASC. We interviewed them via Zoom, click your clicking device on the video below and get to know the team.

Georgia Institute of Technology, US:  This is the fourth cluster competition for Georgia Tech and their first ISC appearance. The team has also competed in the US-based SC events.

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore:  This will be the 14th time a team from NYU has competed in a major cluster competition. Since their first competition in 2014, NYU has built up an enviable record of one gold medal, three silver medals, and three Highest LINPACK Awards. This is another team that we managed to interview, give them a look….

ShanghaiTech University, China:  This team is a recent entrant to the cluster battles, having started in 2018, but they’ve packed a lot of experience into that time span, competing in five events on three continents. Their best finish so far has been a silver medal during their inaugural ISC appearance.

Southern University of Science & Technology, China:  The SusTECH team is still fairly new to the world of bigtime student clustering but they’ve competed in all of the major events, including SC, ASC and ISC. So far in the journey, they’ve harvested a Highest LINPACK Award, but are hungry for more.

Sun Yat-Sen University:  SYSU has participated in nine previous cluster competition events, and the university even hosted the ASC competition back in 2014 – which they won. The team has also competed in person at ISC events. They’re always a solid team and are ready to take that next step into the upper echelon of competitors.

Tsinghua University:  This is the 25th student cluster competition for Tsinghua University – by far more than any other team. They also have the best record of any team with 12 Overall Championships, five Silver Medals, and one Bronze Medal. Why are they so good? Number one, this is important to the team and the university – it’s a priority for them. Second, they seem to know how to tightly control the power to more components than most team. Third, they know the applications and come prepared. They never have a problem compiling their apps or getting them to run. Take heed, other teams. In the immortal words of The Nature Boy, Ric Flair, “if you want to be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

University of California, Santa Clara, US:  This is the first major international competition for the UCSC Banana Slug team. They got their feet wet at the inaugural 2021 Winter Classic Invitational Student Cluster Competition last year, finishing in third place. This only whetted their appetite for more, so they entered the online division of the ISC22 tournament. Go Banana Slugs!

Zhejiang University, China:  This will be the fifth competition for Zhejiang University. They’ve previously competed in the ASC and SC competitions, and this is their first ISC outing. I remember this team from ASC14. They wanted the Highest LINPACK Award and they wanted it bad. They performed what I now call the “Suicide LINPACK.” The students observed that their three-node system, which was jam packed with GPUs, could make the LINPACK run very quickly – I forget the exact time, but it was very fast. Sooooo…they decided to roll the dice by taking the panels off their system, spreading their nodes throughout the rack, and then….disconnecting their fans. This gave them just a little bit more power to use for their GPUs. It worked. And they took home the LINPACK Award. Quite the wild ride.

Monash University, Australia:  This is the third competition for Monash and their second ISC event. It hasn’t been an easy road for Monash. Their team roster was in constant upheaval, with really only two solid members that competed all the way through, plus a third member added towards the end of the competition period. This is a very tough situation. There’s a reason why most teams have six students:  this is a LOT of work! It’s a huge workload for six students and a truly massive challenge for 2.5 students. But they did it. They didn’t give up. And that says a lot for both the school and the students. Learn more about their challenges and how they coped with them in the interview below.

On-Premises Competition

For the first time in more than two years, we’ve had a full-on in-person cluster competition taking place on a show floor! It’s been way too long. Although participation was limited to European institutions, we still had five student teams packed into show floor booths, all vying for the golden trophies.

As always, we interviewed the teams, here they are:

ETH Zurich, Switzerland:  This is the fifth ETH appearance in a major competition, four at ISC and one at SC, with their first event at ISC19. They’ve landed on the scoreboard twice, nabbing a Highest LINPACK and Bronze Medal at their inaugural competition in 2019. Check them out in the video below…

University of Hamburg/Otto von Guericke University, Germany:  This combined team is mostly from Hamburg, but with a little Otto von Guericke flair added to give the team a bit of spice. University of Hamburg has been sending teams to ISC since 2014 and has competed in a total of eight events (including ISC22)’ They’ve always fielded competitive teams but have yet to discover the elusive combination of hardware, software, and wetware necessary to take home a trophy, Get to know them by watching the video below.

University of Heidelberg, Germany:  They can argue that they have a home court advantage since they’re from the same country, but they’re 293 miles away (that’s 471 km in local measurement). Heidelberg is a relative newcomer to the cluster competitions, having started in 2018. They’re come up empty trophy-wise in their four previous competitions, is this the year they get over the hump and take home some hardware? (Yeah, it is, as you’ll find out in a few paragraphs).

UPC, Spain:  UPC stands for Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, a set of words that I can’t pronounce and can barely spell correctly when typing. This team, backed by mentors from the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, has been competing for the past seven years – all at the ISC competitions. Team “NotOnlyFlops”, as they’ve dubbed themselves, used to only compete with Arm-based systems, sometimes mixing in off-brand sad accelerators, but usually just with Arm.

When Nvidia announced at ISC19 that they were going to release an Arm version of CUDA, the team was giddy with joy. They were finally going to be able to combine their beloved Arm processors with serious kick-ass accelerators and would have a chance to rule the world, at least from a cluster competition perspective. But then Covid hit and the next two ISC competitions were virtual – meaning the team would be using someone else’s hardware.

Fast forward to ISC22. I walked into the venue fully expecting to see UPC proudly sporting an Arm configuration crammed with the latest and greatest Nvidia GPUs. Didn’t happen. The coaches advised and encouraged the team to go with RISC-V processors instead because they were more ‘interesting.’ However, they could only get enough of them to push to about 400 watts into the 3,000 watt power allowance.

Speaking only for myself, I wasn’t wild about this route. I think RISC-V is certainly an interesting architecture and worth learning about – but it’s not the right choice for a cluster competition if you want to be competitive and keep with the spirit of the event. These are competitions, not science fairs. Just one guys opinion. Check out the video to hear more about the team and their configuration.

EPCC, University of Edinburgh, UK:  This is the seventh outing for the University of Edinburgh team. The team has seen some success, nailing down a LINPACK and third place finish in previous years. It’s a four-person team, which is typical for EPCC. They decided to go with two nodes and a whopping 16 A100 GPUs – which on boot would be way over the 3,000 watt power limit plus be very hard to keep cool. The team found this out the hard way, after the competition had already begun, so they didn’t have the option of simply removing some GPUs until they could operate it under the limit. Meh, that’s the way it goes sometimes, right?

There are two versions of the video – the bad one and the good one. The bad one was truncated, something I’m blaming on Adobe Premiere Pro. The good version has the entire video and is featured below.

So How’d it Turn Out?

It was a spirited competition for the most part. It was full of triumphs and turmoil, as is par for the course in every event. The most important thing is that there was learning and that we have some more students interested in HPC/AI jobs, that’s the real point of these competitions.

Let’s talk about the virtual competition first. It was a tour de force for China as they took down the top three spots.

Team Tsinghua grabbed first place, which gives them an astounding 13 Gold Medals and yet another trophy for the jam-packed trophy case.

Sun Yat-Sen University finished second, which gives them a Silver Medal to add to their less crowded cluster competition trophy case.

Southern University of Science & Technology takes home the third place Bronze Medal, which will look nice next to their Highest LINPACK Award, won at SC21.

On the on-premises side of the ledger, Team Heidelberg finally broke through in a big way. They not only nailed down the Highest LINPACK Award, and added in the Overall Championship award for good measure. This gives them two shiny trophies. Their next task? Build a cluster competition trophy case.

ETH Zurich snatched second place honors, which was a pretty great achievement given that the team was using the same hardware as they used in the last three competitions. What the hell? Three years is an eternity in high-tech, and V100 accelerators are so 2019. It’s time to have a candid conversation with your system sponsor and get into the 2020’s with your next system.

Team UPC continued their dominance of the Fan Favorite Award, making it number five for them – great job.

So with another ISC Student Cluster Competition is in the books, it’s time to thank the HPC AI Advisory Council for organizing, managing, and sponsoring the event, along with the ISC22 organizers for making it all possible. They all did a great job in bringing this complex virtual plus in-person competition home.

Looking ahead, we have the SC22 competition on the horizon. This is also a dual virtual and in-person event. We’ll find out soon who’s in and where they’ll be competing soon and let you know. Stay tuned….

 

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