Local students excel in international super-computing competition

December 20th, 2016, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT

 

It is not often that I have the opportunity to have a conversation with a group of young people for this monthly feature in EngineerIT. The recent Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) conference in East London presented the opportunity, resulting in a most interesting conversation with 14 of the brightest young men and women in South Africa. They are from various universities and represented South Africa in the fifth High Performance Computing Advisory Council International Super Computing Conference student cluster competition held on 22 June 2016 in Germany – which was won by South Africa. The second and third places were won by students from institutions in China. South Africa also won in 2013 and 2014, and came second in 2015.

 

Representatives of the ten teams that took part in the knock-out competition for the 2017 international competition and participants in previous years. Front row: Avi Bank, Boani Brian Woggoyi, Marrissa van Wyngaardt, Lydia de Lange, Warren Jacobs, Eugene de Beste (representing the 2014 ICS team who came second), Liam Doult, Thapelo Masethe. Back row: Atif Muhammad (representing the 2013 ICS winning team) Kerane Naidoo, Tason Matthew, Kyle Weiher, Conrad Haupt and Ben Sturgeon.

 

The competition features small teams demonstrating the incredible capabilities of state-of-the-art high-performance cluster hardware and software.  Eleven teams of six students built small clusters of their own design on the International Super Computing (ISC) exhibition floor and raced to demonstrate the best performance across a series of benchmarks and applications.

In conversation with some of the winning team members and students who are participating in this year’s local team competition, it was said that the competition is a unique opportunity to gain experience and demonstrate how high performance computing (HPC) influences our world and day-to-day learning.

The competition is held in collaboration with the Performance Computing Advisory Council (PPCAC) and ISC.  The student cluster competition is designed to introduce the next generation of students to the high performance computing world and community. The South African competition is sponsored by Dell EMC, Eclipse Holdings, Mellanox and Bright Computing – all ensuring that our country develops tomorrow’s HPC practitioners today.

To select the team that will represent South Africa in the 2017 event ten teams competed as part of the CHPC annual conference, held in East London.  The ten teams have some highly original names: AutoMatics, No Windows, Argand, Terminators, Purple Thunder, Bit Please, Tera Ramz, AndYet it Compiles, the Saffa Crew and Team-Cannonlake. The winning team will represent South Africa in 2017.

“Our biggest challenge was in this year’s final in Germany”, said Avi Bank (representing the 2016 ICS winning team). “When we arrived and unpacked the equipment we found that the InfiniBand switch was not booting up. This would normally require a frantic search through the manual, but we were fortunate that the supplier was on hand and could quickly replace the switch.”

“There are many teams participating in the competition” said Lydia de Lange. “Each team has four members. During June and July we take part in the first elimination round when ten teams are selected and it is those teams that are now competing here in East London. The winning team will then compete internationally in 2017 in Germany. From the other nine teams four members are selected to complete the South African national team.”

Universities nominate students for the elimination week. They come mainly from engineering and computer science disciplines. “During elimination week we attend lectures in the morning and tutorials during the afternoons and at the end of the week we have to do a presentation,” said Lydia.  “The week is very intense but very practical. We learn a lot,” Avi added.

“Overseas the question is often asked why the South African team is so successful. We go through elimination rounds and select the best team to take part in the challenge. Other countries enter single teams from individual universities,” said Lydia.

It is generally accepted that university students have their hands full with their normal studies so what motivates them to take on this huge challenge? “Hey listen, if somebody tells you that you can get your hands on a R250 000 piece of computing equipment or have a chance to go overseas who would not go for it? I guess we are all a bit geeky,” said Eugene de Beste who was part of the team that won the 2014 international competition.

The competition is aimed at undergraduate students. The group agreed that targetting undergraduates is a good idea because it exposes them to high performance computing and they gain experience in its application before entering into post-graduate master and PhD studies.

Several students commented on how they benefitted from being part of the competition and their involvement with the CHPC. Atif Muhammond, who was part of the 2013 winning team said that it exposes them to very experienced people who work at the CHPC. “It is not just about HPC but you learn how to manage systems and get experience in trouble-shooting. There are also opportunities for post-graduate studies with CHPC support. I would not change that for any commercial approach.”

During our conversation the students agreed that the best prize they get out of this competition is exposure. One of the students remarked “at university we do not get exposed to things like this. HPC is all about utilising your resources so it is not only limited to computing, it is also about all things you do in life.”

Would they do it again? “Yes”’ said Eugene de Beste. “Besides all the technology, you learn how to work as a team, work under pressure and learn how to manage resources most effectively.”