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Cluster Challenge: Purdue, ITaP student supercomputing team does well

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John Blaas and Andrew Huff, designated system administrators for Purdue’s student supercomputing team, didn’t see much of Seattle this week but it wasn’t like they slept through their trip to the Cluster Challenge, the student competition at SC11, the world’s largest supercomputing conference.

“Since Sunday, it was just about 13 hours,” was the response from Blass when asked how much sleep he and Huff had gotten since the competition began in earnest on Sunday (Nov. 13).

Being sleepless in Seattle paid off for Blaas and his teammates. Purdue’s team had one of its best showings in the Cluster Challenge, against an international field of rivals. ITaP sponsors the team, this year in partnership with Intel. The competition ended Thursday (Nov. 17).

The Purdue team was one of eight qualifiers for the 2011 Cluster Challenge, one of just four from the U.S. These supercomputing Boilermakers, who built and operated their own supercomputer for the competition, competed against teams from China, Costa Rica, Russia and Taiwan as well as students from Boston University, the University of Colorado and the University of Texas. National Tsing Hua University of Taiwan won.

In addition to Blaas, a senior in computer and information technology from Lafayette, and Huff, a junior in computer science from Cary, N.C, the team members are Alex Bartol, a senior in computer science from Fort Wayne; Joad Fattah, a junior in computer science from Carmel; Michael Heffernan, a senior in computer science from Kokomo; and Tyler Reid, a junior in computer science from Zionsville.

While Blass and Huff administered the machine, the other students were responsible for crunching simulated data provided by the competition’s organizers with a set of scientific software applications. The 2011 applications are used for studying the actions of chemical molecules, the colliding and merging of galaxies, the basic workings of biological life and the motion of the oceans.

“That’s probably one of my favorite things about supercomputing,” Heffernan says. “All these different fields come together and use the same technology to produce some incredible results.”

The data collection was too massive for any team to process fully. The students are judged on how much they get done while working around the clock over three days, the precision of their results and their ability to explain the strategy they used in the Cluster Challenge.

With 160 of partner Intel’s processors inside, a hundred times more than a typical personal computer, Purdue’s 2011 Cluster Challenge entry is akin to a mini version of the Hansen cluster supercomputer Purdue installed over the summer and the four other clusters ITaP has built in partnership with Purdue Faculty since 2008. Faculty researchers in earth and atmospheric sciences, chemistry, physics, computer science, aeronautics and astronautics, electrical and computer engineering, materials engineering and more use Hansen.

Most of this year’s Purdue team helped build Hansen as student workers at the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing, ITaP’s research computing unit. Stephen Harrell and Alex Younts, staff members at the Rosen Center, are the staff advisors for the Cluster Challenge team. Earth and atmospheric sciences Professor Mike Baldwin is the team’s faculty advisor.

As part of their involvement in the Cluster Challenge, the students on the team are in a high-performance computing class taught by Baldwin. But they spend hours outside class getting ready and have to juggle other classes, homework and exams to attend SC11 for the competition. The team began working on its machine before the semester started.

Huff says the competition is worth the effort, even the lack of sleep.

“It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be,” he says. “I’ll definitely do it again next year.”

Writer: Greg Kline, ITaP science and technology writer, 765-494-8167 (office), 765-426-8545 (mobile),

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