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Students gain new perspectives on supercomputing, breakfast, mattresses

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As a student worker helping maintain Purdue’s research supercomputers, Andrew Huff knows something about how University faculty researchers use the machines, but he gained a broader perspective on the high-performance computing field this week.

Supercomputing to develop nicer smelling laundry detergent and find new oil deposits? “I’d never even considered that,” said Huff, a junior in computer science from Cary, N.C. “This stuff really drives what a lot of corporations do.”

That’s one lesson Huff and his teammates are taking away from their experience in the 2012 Cluster Challenge, the international student competition at SC12, the world’s largest supercomputing conference, which was held in Salt Lake City this week (Nov. 10-16). ITaP sponsored the Purdue Cluster Challenge team in partnership with HP.

“It’s just an awesome experience,” said Nick Molo, a junior in computer engineering from, Joliet, Ill. “It’s exclusive to be here and it’s great for networking.”

The Purdue team was one of just eight selected for the Cluster Challenge and the only one from the Midwest and the Big Ten. It competed against teams from China and around the U.S. The University of Texas won the competition. Purdue earned sportsmanship kudos for volunteering its backup system to Texas Tech when the Texas school’s machine failed to arrive in Salt Lake City.

In addition to Huff and Molo, the team includes Cody Breedlove, a senior in computer science from Royal Center; Kurt Kroeger, a sophomore in computer science from Nashville, Tenn.; Ethan Madden, a junior in computer science from Newburgh; and Tyler Reid, a senior in computer science from Zionsville. ITaP staff members Stephen Harrell and Andy Howard advised the team.

Over the last few days the students focused on running a massive amount of simulated scientific data in a suite of designated research software for exploring everything from the very big — the global climate — to the very small — the movement of atoms.

The students’ entry was a mini version of the Purdue’s new Carter cluster supercomputer, which Purdue faculty researchers in aeronautics and astronautics; earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences; economics; genomics; and more use in their research.

The teammates shared the load monitoring and adjusting their supercomputer continuously as they worked to process as much of the data as possible. That didn’t leave much time for leisurely dinner breaks, or breakfast.

“We ordered a pizza at 3 a.m. because they were the only place in Salt Lake City still open,” Madden said.

Reid did catch a nap in the team’s booth during one overnight shift.

“I slept on some backpacks for about two hours,” he said. “It’s so fun. I enjoy talking to the other teams. I enjoy the exhibits. Plus, sleeping on backpacks is a war story you can tell. It’s just a great experience all around.”

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