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NCSA’s Student Cluster Competition Team Places Third at SC18

Each year, NCSA and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign sponsor a team in the annual Student Cluster Competition at the Supercomputing Conference (SC). This year’s competition, which took place over 48 hours, featured 14 teams hailing from Australia to Taiwan (and many other places). The competition challenges these teams to construct their own computing clusters, and then run real-world applications and tests on them with realistic budget, power and time constraints.

The Student Cluster Competition (SCC) is an extremely valuable educational asset because it provides rare, real-world scenarios that students are forced to adapt to, with constraints that are non-factors in an academic computing environment.

“Students participating in the Student Cluster Competition face the same challenges as academic and industrial users of HPC and they have to deliver solutions comparable to what system engineers and application developers work on every day,” said Volodymyr Kindratenko, NCSA Research Scientist and the SCC team’s sponsor. “These real-life lessons are not taught in the classroom, they are hard to come by in an idealized educational environment where the computing resources are readily available and easy to use. This is what makes this competition so valuable to our students.”

Regardless of the priceless hands-on experience that the Student Cluster Competition provides, this competition is still just that – a competition – with the goal of victory, which in this case means handling real-world HPC issues in real-time on clusters that the teams, themselves, have built.

This year was a good one for the NCSA team, which placed third overall, and first among American universities. In addition to this stellar showing, the team was also presented with two additional awards: a Good Neighbor Award for aiding another team, and a Price Is Right Award for spending less than $500 on their cloud budget. The NCSA team was the only team to win two additional awards at SC18.

“Our team improved significantly compared to our last year’s results, both in terms of the computer hardware used by the team and in terms of the applications and software understanding needed to successfully execute the tasks,” said Kindratenko. “We were able to complete every single competition assignment and our results typically were among the top.”

“This is in part due to having a well-balanced system that was well-suited for the challenging competition workloads. Just like Blue Waters, our system was designed not to achieve highest benchmark performance, but rather to do well on a range of scientific workloads.”

To Kindratenko (and many at NCSA and throughout the HPC community), the value of the Student Cluster Competition is almost priceless, and the educational benefits of the annual competition are vital in-and-of themselves, but performing well makes the competition all the more worthwhile.

“Working with students is always a highly rewarding experience,” concluded Kindratenko. “I especially enjoy observing how they grow professionally over the course of the year while preparing for the competition. Last spring most of them knew very little about HPC; today they possess many of the skills only professional HPC users and developers have.”

For more information about the SC Student Cluster Competition, check out their homepage here.

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