Purdue student supercomputing team heads to China for international competition

April 10, 2014

Computer science major Matt Molo is considering a career in computer security, supercomputing or distributed computing over a large array of machines, the way the giant data centers of companies like Amazon and Google function.

“I was really interested in learning about supercomputers and running programs across multiple computers,” says Molo, a freshman from Joilet, Ill.

He’s getting a hands-on opportunity to do that as a member of a student supercomputing team preparing for an international competition in China starting April 21. The Purdue team, sponsored by ITaP, is one of 16 in the ASC14 Student Supercomputer Challenge. Purdue’s team is the lone U.S. representative. The other teams are from 10 schools in China and from Brazil, Hungary, Russia, Singapore and South Korea.

The four-day competition takes place in Guangzhuo, China’s third largest city and the home of the Chinese national supercomputing center, the world’s fastest supercomputer and a university complex with more than 100,000 students. It is organized by the Asia Supercomputer Community, Sun Yat-sen University and Inspur Group, a multinational information technology company, which covers travel, housing and food costs.

In addition to Molo, the Purdue team includes Fangning Cheng, a freshman in computer science from Jiangsu, China; John Pavlick, a senior in computer engineering from Pittsburgh, Pa.; Linda Thongsavath, a senior in computer science from Joliet, Ill.; and David Zinn, a senior in computer science from McCordsville, Ind. ITaP staff members Stephen Harrell and Alex Younts advise the team and also teach a for-credit supercomputing class the students take in conjunction with being a team member.

Harrell and Younts work with Purdue’s world-class suite of community cluster supercomputers operated by ITaP Research Computing (RCAC), which are used by faculty researchers for everything from designing longer-lasting batteries to developing new cancer treatments. Some of the team members are among the student staff that helps administer the community clusters. Harrell and Younts recruited others from a student tour of ITaP’s cluster data center.

In the competition, the students, all of whom must be undergraduates, assemble their own mini cluster and configure it to run a battery of software over four days. Besides high-performance computing benchmarking programs, the known applications include scientific software for tasks such as modeling nanoscale materials, fluid dynamics simulation and aeronautical design. The competition also features a “secret” application the teams receive once in China.

ITaP-sponsored teams have participated in U.S. and European versions of the student supercomputing challenge regularly, but this is the first time Purdue has a team in the Asian challenge.

The Asian competition differs in that all the teams will assemble their supercomputers largely from stock parts provided by the challenge organizers. That could be some advantage for the Purdue team because the components include hardware similar to Purdue’s new Conte community cluster, the fastest system for use by researchers on a single campus in the U.S., which the students have used to practice for the China challenge.

Because all the teams will be using basically the same machine, rather than providing their own hardware as in the U.S. and European competitions, the Asian challenge places greater emphasis on configuring and modifying software to run well. To even earn the trip to China, the Purdue students had to place highly in a field of 84 teams from five continents in a software coding-centered preliminary competition earlier this year.

In China, besides their own supercomputer, they have to configure applications to scale up and run on the Chinese Tianhe-2 “Milky Way” supercomputer, which has more than 3.1 million processors and was rated as the world’s fastest known supercomputer in November. Like Purdue’s Conte cluster, the Milky Way system gets a lot of its considerable computing power by incorporating Intel’s cutting-edge Xeon Phi accelerator technology.

The focus on software skills was an attraction for Thongsavath, the first woman on a Purdue student supercomputing team.

“I work around supercomputers, but I've never actually coded for them, so I thought it would be an interesting change of pace,” says Thongsavath, who is a student administrator for ITaP Research Computing (RCAC) and has a job as a software engineer lined up after graduation.

Harrell says ITaP sponsors the team, in part, to generate homegrown talent for Purdue’s supercomputing needs. But the students come away with what are now high-demand skills in research labs, business and industry as well.

“I think it opens up a lot of career opportunities for them,” Harrell says. “There’s a shortage of people in this space. I don’t see that changing soon.”

Originally posted: April 10, 2014