South African Cluster Competition Team Enjoys Big Texas HPC Adventure

By Elizabeth Leake, Texas A&M

February 26, 2024

Texas A&M University’s High-Performance Research Computing (HPRC) hosted an elite South African delegation on February 8 – undergraduate computer science (and computationally-intensive domain) scholars from the South African Center for High-Performance Computing (Team CHPC). While they have visited Texas for training since 2017, this year’s US journey included side trips to College Station upon the invitation of HPRC Executive Director Honggao Liu, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA in Houston), and the University of Houston at Clear Lake as guests of Computer Science Professor Liwen Shih who delivered a keynote at the CHPC’23 National Meeting in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Texas A&M HPRC scientists and students with Team CHPC and their advisers – Photo by Sheri Stebbene, HPRC. (Click for larger image.)

HPRC’s Director of Advanced Computing Enablement, Lisa Perez, led a tour of Texas A&M’s West Campus Data Center (WCDC), a 50,000-square-foot LEED-certified, Tier 4 facility (new in 2019). At WCDC, the students learned about various modern HPC systems that support researchers worldwide. These clusters include the NSF ACES (National Science Foundation: Accelerating Computing for Emerging Sciences) composable testbed, launched September 1, 2023, which features Dell servers, Liqid PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) fabrics, Nvidia H100 GPUs (Graphics Processing Units), Graphcore IPUs (Intelligence Processing Units), Intel PVC GPUs, Intel/BittWare FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays), NEC Vector Engines, and NextSilicon Coprocessors. The composable framework and selection of accelerators are designed to help researchers tackle the computational and data challenges associated with artificial intelligence (AI) workflows. Read more about ACES on the HPRC website

Team CHPC also enjoyed a 90-minute walking tour of campus and a question and answer session. HPRC’s Elizabeth Leake (also adviser to the African HPC Ecosystems and Southern African Development Community Cyberinfrastructure (CI) projects since 2013) and Scientist Sandra Nite shared anecdotes about their academic and career trajectories. The HPRC team’s diversity, in general, and a number of female professionals, in particular, were recognized by the cohort, who later noted that representation matters. 

This enthusiastic group is training for the International Supercomputing Conference Student Cluster Competition (ISC-SCC) to be held in Hamburg, Germany, May 12-16, 2024. While the faces change yearly, this is the 12th time a CHPC cohort has competed at ISC. 

Since 2020, ISC-SCC has featured both remote and in-person rallies. Eight teams from as many nations as possible will compete in Germany this year. The virtual contest provides 19 teams from ten countries remote access to the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Bridges-2 supercomputer at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center and the HLRE-4 Levante system at the Deutsches Klimarechenzentrum (German Climate Computation Center; DKRZ) in Hamburg.

South Africa is the only participating country with an eclectic national team; others are from a single institution (or community/region). Elimination trials are held during their December national meeting, where ~250 students from 30 schools nationwide compete for a chance to participate. The student activity is a focal point for the professional conference; their enthusiasm is contagious. This year, five students from the University of Witwatersrand and two from the University of the Free State were selected to progress to ISC (teams typically feature six plus one or two alternates). 

South Africa’s government support for international CI excellence is paying off, thanks to Center Director Happy Sithole (National Integrated CI; Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR-NICIS)). Team CHPC often prevails at the ISC-SCC, vying for first or second place since 2017 (neck-and-neck with China’s Tsinghua team. This year, China prepared eight teams for the virtual contest, and will send Tsinghua to Germany, with support from Inspur Group). Dell, TACC, and CHPC have a long history of collaboration that also established the African HPC Ecosystems project in 2012 with a donation from the University of Texas (the US NSF Ranger system, followed by clusters donated by U-Cambridge in the UK and South Africa). Today, there are a dozen Ecosystem clusters in nine African countries. This program has prepared legions of professionals who have entered the local, regional, and global CI workforce pipeline; each point of presence fosters a wellspring of support for others who will follow in their footsteps. 

Team CHPC Coach Nyameko Lisa.

“It was interesting to see the variety of HPC systems that Texas A&M hosts and to learn about the communities each serves. While ACES is designed to support AI/ML challenges, as we prepare for quantum, it’s important to provide access to such disaggregated platforms so that students and researchers learn new skills and begin to envision what the future holds. Personally, for me, technology has been a great driver of change within my own community. It is imperative that the CHPC continues to leverage such partnerships and collaborations so that through the use of technology, we may navigate, understand, and solve our indigenous challenges and those across the continent,” said Team CHPC Coach Nyameko Lisa.

All roads lead to Texas!

Dell Technologies supports Team CHPC’s ISC participation (hardware and travel), and the South African CSIR (SA’s equivalent to the US NSF) sponsors US travel for training at Dell Labs in Round Rock and at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) in Austin, as guests of TACC Executive Director Dan Stanzione. 

For more information about the ISC-SCC, please visit the ISC website. Follow Team CHPC and ISC on X at #CHPC_SCC and #ISC24.

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