Student supercomputing team from Purdue, Colorado competes in Germany

  • June 8, 2016
  • Science Highlights

When the time came to write and compile a computer program for his first-year engineering class, Austyn Cousins didn’t, unlike a lot of freshman, struggle with the assignment.

A member of a student supercomputing team sponsored by ITaP, he already had experience programming to optimize applications like those that run on Purdue’s Community Cluster Program research supercomputers.

“Participating on the team has been immensely helpful in benefiting my education,” says Cousins, a computer engineering major from Perry, Ohio. “Once you’ve figured out how to run parallel applications on a supercomputer, compiling and running a serial program for a class is a walk in the park.”

Cousins is one of six students on a combined Purdue and University of Colorado, Boulder, team competing at the ISC16 supercomputing conference in Europe. The conference is one of the supercomputing industry’s major international gatherings. ITaP, HP, Matrix Integration, Dell and Intel are sponsoring the student team.

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The Purdue-Colorado team is one of 12 in the competition, which takes place in Frankfurt, Germany, June 19-23. A combined team from Boston University, Northeastern and MIT and a team of students from the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center in Berkeley, California, are the other U.S. entrants. The other teams are from China, Estonia, Germany, Singapore, South Africa and Spain.

Besides Cousins, now a sophomore, the Purdue students on the team include Brandon Stewart, a sophomore in computer science from Hoffman Estates, Ill., and Emma Wynne, a senior in computer science from Indianapolis. ITaP Research Computing staff members Lev Gorenstein and Chuck Schwarz are the team’s advisors. The Colorado students are Kaleb Bodisch, a senior in astrophysics and computer science, Danny Brill, a senior in computer science, and Samm Elliott, a senior in applied math. Doug Smith, a staff member at Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, collaborates with Gorenstein and Schwarz to advise the team.

It is Wynne’s second trip to the student competition. She was a member of a combined Purdue and Universidad EAFIT, Colombia, team last year and came away knowing she wanted to do it again.

“Meeting the other teams was fantastic and the conference was incredible,” she says.

The student teams, all composed of undergraduates or high school students, assemble their own mini supercomputer and configure it to run a battery of benchmarking programs and scientific software to process real science data provided by the competition organizers. The goal is to score the highest benchmark and to crunch as much of the data as possible between Monday evening and Wednesday afternoon.

The known applications include software for probing big data, visualizing cosmological simulations and weather research and forecasting. The competition also features a “secret” application that the teams will be assigned upon arriving in Germany. In addition to assembling its system, the team works to tailor the applications to best fit its machine.

Armed with hands-on high-performance computing experience, students on the teams tend to be in high demand after graduating. While Cousins isn’t thinking about a career in supercomputing, he says being on the team should be useful on the career path he does have in mind — designing autonomous vehicle systems.

“It’s one of many fields in which countless subsystems must communicate with each other with low latency,” he says. “This is analogous to several nodes on a supercomputer running an application in parallel. The concepts I learn on a large computer can be scaled down to a smaller system.”

Stewart says participating in the team is teaching him valuable lessons beyond computing skills.

“This team has taught me new problem-solving techniques to overcome difficult challenges,” he says. “After graduation, I will be working on problems at a company. I will use the problem-solving and team-working skills I learned to tackle the challenges given to me.”

Originally posted: June 8, 2016 9:21am EDT