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Purdue Cluster Challenge team all set for Texas

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Face it, even Peyton Manning would have trouble hitting his receiver were the Colts quarterback standing in Indianapolis while his target ran in Massachusetts.

But long distance connection hasn’t been a problem for the Purdue SuperComputing ’08 Conference Cluster Challenge team.

Huddled over their laptops in a classroom lab on the Purdue Campus recently, Andy Howard, Alex Younts and colleagues were making adjustments to their competition machine—running in the Boston area at Purdue partner SiCortex—pretty much as if it were right in the room with them. They said they don’t even think much about the SiCortex SC1458 not being near enough to reach out and touch literally, outside of the occasional network lag that brings the point home.

Cluster Challenge teams at the premier international conference for high performance computing, networking, storage and analysis have to run a battery of benchmarking programs and working applications on their machines as efficiently as possible.

The students on the Purdue team—teams are limited to no more than six undergraduates—have spent most of the semester preparing to run a wide range of scientific software within the constraints of the contest, said Preston Smith, senior UNIX system administrator for Purdue's Rosen Center for Advanced Computing, who’s serving as team leader.

The Cluster Challenge’s rules also limit the amount of power the entries can draw from two 120-volt, 13-amp circuits, which limits the number of processors that can be employed. Purdue’s cluster had more than 40 processors last year, with most competitors falling between 30 and 60. The 2008 Boilermaker team may be able to run nearly 1,000 processing cores concurrently in the SiCortex, orders of magnitude above the competition.

“It’ll be markedly different than all the other teams,” said Younts, a sophomore in computer science from West Lafayette, who works as a student system administrator at the Rosen Center and was on last year’s Cluster Challenge team.

That’s because SiCortex builds supercomputers designed to deliver high performance using large numbers of slower, energy-efficient processors, both in power consumption and the cooling they require. Among other things, the company uses a unique, very fast “interconnect fabric”—the wiring that links its processors for working in concert—offsetting the raw speed disadvantage.

The Rosen Center, the research and discovery arm of Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), the University’s central information technology organization, installed a top-of-the line SiCortex machine in June to test it from both performance and energy-saving perspectives. The SC1458 the Cluster Challenge team will use is the next step down from the Rosen Center’s SC5832. The numbers in both cases refer to the maximum number of processors the machines can contain.

Like the Rosen Center SiCortex, the competition machine comes in a modular package basically ready to plug in and run. That means this year’s Cluster Challenge team didn’t have to spend time building a cluster, which the 2007 team did. Most of the 2008 team’s work has involved retooling software to run on its entry in a way that takes maximum advantage of its voluminous processor array.

“It’s not your standard architecture so you can’t just install it and it works,” said team member Ryan Weinschenk, a senior in electrical and computer engineering technology from Noblesville. “The hardware performance is there. It’s just actually getting the software to run.” Mark Blessing, vice president of marketing for SiCortex, said getting a lot out of a thousand processors poses a challenge and the Purdue team has worked hard to tune the software to do it.

Team members anticipate being able to run many—and maybe all—of the applications concurrently, by parceling out a certain number of processors for each, which is potentially a big advantage.

“For the applications that we have running, I feel pretty confident,” Howard said.

The SiCortex also looks like it will easily beat the Cluster Challenge power limit, even when running the most demanding of the required benchmark software.

John Campbell, associate vice president for information technology, who heads the Rosen Center, said Purdue’s Cluster and Bandwidth challenge entries at SC08 are ultimately about pushing the limits of technology to meet the demands of the scientific community.

Even the theme of Purdue’s SC08 booth—No cycle left behind, no byte left unexplored—is a nod to the creative ways ITaP is finding to improve scientific productivity, Campbell said, including the testing of new technologies like the SiCortex that could offer significant benefits.

SiCortex has been impressed with the skill and enthusiasm of the Purdue Cluster Challenge team, Blessing said.

“By making the most of our computer’s unique architecture they are positioning themselves well for success in Austin,” he said. “More importantly, they will be able to apply what they have learned to the burning issue of supercomputing today: how to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for computing power in the face of severe data center power constraints.”

Smith said the Cluster Challenge team has been working almost since school started this fall and in some cases even before. Younts, Howard, a senior in electrical and computer engineering technology from West Lafayette, and David King, a senior in electrical and computer engineering technology from Lafayette, were able to work with some of the applications on the Rosen Center’s SiCortex over the summer. Howard is an assistant research programmer for the center and King is a student system administrator. Paul Willmann, a senior in computer technology from Carmel, is the other team member.

The students are enrolled in the high performance computing class of Jeffrey Evans, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology, as part of their involvement in the Cluster Challenge. But they spend up to 20 hours a week on the effort overall and have to juggle classes, homework and exams to attend SC08 for the competition. King will even be doing a little teaching.

He’s going to make a Skype call to his classmates in Evans’ computer architecture class and report on the happenings in Austin, Texas, site of the conference, which runs from Nov. 15-21.

After last year’s Cluster Challenge, Howard and Younts won the top student prize for a paper they presented at the Linux Cluster Institute conference April 29 to May 1 at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana, Ill., and there are plans for a paper on this year’s experience, too, Evans said.

Meanwhile, SiCortex has now shipped the team’s machine to Texas for the competition, so the students will get to see it in person at last.

Writer: Greg Kline, (765) 494-8167,


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