The Cluster Challenge: growing HPC one contest at a time

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SC08 will once again bring the Cluster Challenge to university teams from around the world. Teams of undergraduates will compete on the exhibit floor, using clusters of their own design, to run a workload of real-world problems.

The contest is simple, but the idea is big: users of all skills, and organizations of all sizes, can now own tools that just a few years ago were limited to just a few of the world’s wealthiest R&D organizations. The Challenge aims to demonstrate just how accessible all this horsepower really is.

The Cluster Challenge, now in its second year as part of the technical program at the annual Supercomputing conference, is billed as an event to showcase the computational power that even inexpensive clusters have and, according to the website, the ability of potential users around the world “to harness open source software to solve interesting and important problems.” The competition pits teams of undergraduates against one another to see who can build and configure a cluster that accomplishes the most work using real computational codes in the least amount of time.

So what kind of clusters are we talking about here? ; In order to level the playing field, there are tight physical constraints on the systems. The cluster compute hardware (processors, switch, storage, etc.) must fit into a single 42U rack powered by two 120-volt, 13-amp circuits. According to Gorda, even with this physical limitation the systems built last year were substantial, “At the event one team achieved an amazing 420 GFlops of performance on HPL (Linpack). That score would have put them in the Top500 in 2003, only four years earlier.” For even more perspective, a system like this would have been number 1 in 1995 and still in the top 20 as late as 1998.

The winning team in last year’s Challenge was out of the University of Alberta, supported by vendor partner SGI. This team included 5 U of Alberta undergrads, 1 high school student, faculty coach Paul Lu, and variety of other coaches and contributors.

What was the key to Alberta’s victory? Paul Lu points to the deep commitment of team, “As a coach, I learned that you cannot really motivate a team that does not already want to win. The student team members were motivated and talented.” Lu also credits their vendor partner, “…SGI was great with engineering support (when needed) and, for example, in providing some last minute, expensive memory upgrades when we determined it could make a big difference with the GAMESS application.”

If you are interested in taking part in this year’s Cluster Challenge, you still have time to get in on this incredible learning experience. You can get more information about the various Challenges sponsored at SC08 – including very detailed information about the Cluster Challenge – at the SC08 challenges web site. The deadline for entry into this year’s competition is July 31. And if you are a company interested in sponsoring a team, or you are part of a team in search of a vendor, get in touch with the Challenge chairs by sending an email to