Student Spotlight: Yan Zhan

02.22.19 -

Building anything from the ground-up is a monumental and daunting challenge, but building a supercomputer with very limited training is often-times enough to intimidate even the most ambitious undergraduate student.

For the University of Illinois’ Student Cluster Competition (SCC) team and their captain-turned-advisor Yan Zhan, this task is what they spend the better part of a year refining. All of this preparation leads up to the SCC team’s “Super Bowl” of sorts, with hard work culminating in the SCC competition at the annual Supercomputing Conference every fall.

This year was particularly fruitful for the University of Illinois team, which is advised by National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) staff. They took home first place among American universities at SC18 in Dallas, Texas, and third place overall. This success, however, was not achieved without frustration and multiple years hard work.

Zhan began his journey with the SCC team as a member of NCSA’s Student Pushing Innovation (SPIN) program as an undergraduate. Through this program, he was paired with Volodymyr “Vlad” Kindratenko, a Senior Research Scientist at NCSA.

“Almost right after I started in the SPIN program, we noticed that SC16 was coming up and there was a Student Cluster Competition,” recalls Zhan, “naturally, we thought ‘why not?’”

But building a cluster requires both access to advanced computing equipment and at least a base-knowledge of system architecture, something that isn’t usually included in undergraduate coursework.

“We started looking for people, but it’s kind of difficult because system management isn’t really something that’s taught in a college course,” said Zhan, “so we tried to look for people who have some sort of experience with Linux, like installing Ubuntu on their laptops for example, and we pieced together a team.”

With the team in place, they now had to find a way to absorb a crash course on server hardware, learning information far above their current educational status.

“Because this wasn’t taught anywhere, we had to find materials to learn from. I was the only person who had handled server hardware due to my experience at NCSA,” remembers Zhan. “The material we used the first year was from a 500-level graduate course, being used entirely by undergrads.”

With a basic five-node cluster from Jump Labs in the UI Research Park and a loose gameplan, the SCC team set out to the Supercomputing Conference in 2016 and finished, surprisingly to Zhan, in the middle of the pack. Realizing that they were still below the 3,000-watt power limit imposed by the competition, Zhan returned the next year to SC17 with a bigger team and a bigger cluster.

“We decided to build it a little bigger [in 2017] and went back to Jump Labs again. They managed to find four spare servers to ship to us,” said Zhan. “These servers, which could hold four GPUs each, were much more powerful.”

2017 was Zhan’s last year as a member of the Student Cluster Competition team, but that didn’t mean his time on the team was over. Following his graduation from the University of Illinois in May of 2018, things truly came full circle when Zhan began as a team advisor for SC18 joined by NCSA’s Vlad Kindratenko.

Not only does the team continue to succeed due to the foundation that Zhan and others helped to build, but Zhan has also seen his love of cluster architecture manifest itself into a full-time job offer at NCSA, where this year he has started work as a Systems Engineer.

“I had some thoughts about going into system engineering initially, but getting involved in the competition really fortified that idea,” said Zhan. “I get a lot of hands-on experience with how the system actually works”

About NCSA

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation's science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students, and collaborators from around the globe use advanced digital resources to address research grand challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing one third of the Fortune 50® for more than 30 years by bringing industry, researchers, and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.