For the third year in a row, UWC students are competing in the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) Student Cluster Challenge, a competition providing South African undergraduate students exposure to an industry that’s increasingly crucial to researchers in fields as disparate as astrophysics, molecular biology and even history.
The 2015 SCC, being held at the CSIR’s Conference Centre in Pretoria, features eight teams of undergrads: three each from Wits and Stellenbosch University; one from UKZN; and UWC’s own Team Blink 10110110, made up of second year Computer Science students Alex Geere, Bruce Beck, Caswall Engelsman and Reyaad Parker, with the help of postgraduate mentor Eugene de Beste – a member of the UWC team that won the Challenge two years ago, and went on to win the International Supercomputing Competition in Leipzig, Germany as well).
Students have four days to build a high performance computing cluster and run benchmarks that test how fast the cluster can run real-world scientific software. Since Sunday, the students have been building their cluster, configuring networks, installing and optimising software…
Teams are judged on team dynamics, cluster design and benchmarking results – how swiftly and accurately they can work through a set of real-world scientific applications.
A benchmark running is unmistakeable: fans spin up like jet turbines and everyone huddles around their screens as the cluster registers its performance numbers…50% efficiency, 60%, 67%…can they squeeze more performance out of the machines?
The students have been preparing for a few months, largely on their own equipment and later re-using some old computers in the Comp Sci NetLab and doing some training on the UWC Astrophysics cluster. (The recent protests made things a little more difficult, but they secured an off-campus venue and they built their first fully-functional cluster there, before coming back and repeating the feat at UWC.)
They’re into the final straight now, doing all their final runs today, before this evening’s judging.
So far things are looking good for Team Blink 10110110, and they’re making UWC proud, says Team Blink’s staff mentor, Peter van Heusden, Researcher at the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI).
As well as teaching competitors about the technical aspects of computing, the Student Cluster Challenge exposes students to the kinds of environments used in real research – and has often led to internships, jobs and improved university computing systems.
“This year, again, I’ve seen the students grow in confidence,” says van Heusden, “and I’ve watched them rise up to become part of the high-performance computing community on this campus. Win or lose, that community engagement is something we’ll be able to draw on in years to come.”