Coffee-Powered Supercomputing at SC10

Students compete in cluster challenge using the energy equivalent of three coffee-makers

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This November, the Cluster Challenge team will represent The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Advanced Computing Center at SC'10 in New Orleans. [Left to Right: Bethany Barrientos, Phillip Verheyden, Vladimir Coxall, Loren Micheloni, Alex Heinzmann. Jason Kilman, also on the team, is not pictured.]

The term "supercomputing" usually evokes images of large, expensive computer systems that calculate unfathomable algorithms and run on enough energy to support a small city. Now, imagine a supercomputer, but run on the electrical equivalent of three standard-size coffee-makers.

This year's international supercomputing conference, SC10, will feature the Student Cluster Competition that challenges students to build, maintain, and run the most-cutting edge, commercially available high-performance computing (HPC) architectures on just 26 amps of energy.

The goal of the competition is to achieve the best cluster performance, with accurate outputs from application runs and the highest throughput, while staying at or below the allotted energy budget. Teams are also judged on the presentation of their system, their visualizations, and how thoroughly they answer questions from judges and conference participants.

The teams hail from The University of Texas at Austin, Florida A&M University, Louisiana State University, the University of Colorado, Purdue University, and Stony Brook University. This is the first year that the competition will include international teams: National TsingHua University from Taiwan, and Nizhni Novgorod State University from Russia.

Each team consists of six undergraduate students dedicated to learning the intricacies of HPC under the instruction of a mentor, who is an employee of the submitting school.

Staff mentors Byoung-Do Kim (left) and Carlos Rosales (right) of the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

The University of Texas at Austin's team members are: Bethany Barrientos, Vladimir Coxall, Alex Heinzmann, Jason Kilman, Loren Micheloni, and Phillip Verheyden. The team submitted a strong application, outlining why they wanted to participate: "This project will provide us with the opportunity to gain an immense amount of experience in a research field that fuels our passion."

Their mentor is Byoung-Do Kim, a research associate in the High Performance Computing Group at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), a nationally renowned supercomputing center and a research unit of The University of Texas at Austin. Kim has worked at TACC since 2007, and has nine years of experience in the field."The competition is a serious challenge and also a ton of fun," Kim said. "These kids are very smart, I'm expecting a lot from them."

Micheloni and Verheyden learned about the Cluster Competition for the first time last year. "When Phillip and I saw the teams at SC09 working together and saw what they were doing, we both knew we wanted to start a team," Micheloni said. At the same time, TACC was looking for a team to coach for the challenge.

Micheloni and Verheyden enlisted team members as qualified and driven as themselves. Five of the team members are computer science majors with various backgrounds and specialties, and one member is an applied mathematics major.

"The idea of doing serious computation on a cluster using only the power of three coffeemakers sparked my interest," said Coxall. "It's an interesting challenge and I want to see how it can be solved."

These students have individual specializations in network topology, HPC visualization, low-level system design, and parallel programming; yet, their experience with HPC as a whole is limited. "I was aware of HPC because I worked at TACC, but I hadn't done any programming or anything related to HPC," said Barrientos, a team member and former student intern with TACC's Visualization and Data Analysis group.

The team has a regimented practice schedule complimented by a staggering amount of independent research and testing. In addition, the team is reviewing past competitors and competitions to see where others have failed, so they don't make the same mistakes.

"We're trying to learn as much as we can about HPC, as well as all the applications and the benchmarks, so we're ready to run everything when our hardware comes in," Micheloni said.

TACC secured their hardware sponsorship from Dell Inc. According to Kim, the team is trying to acquire the most advanced central processing unit (CPU) on the market.

"Dell and TACC have shared a long and valuable partnership, so we are honored to support the TACC team for the SC10 Cluster Challenge," said Tim Carroll, senior manager of Dell's Research Computing Solutions group.  "Bethany, Vladimir, Alex, Jason, Loren and Phillip have demonstrated true intellect, teamwork, and determination during their preparations for the Challenge motivating us to support their efforts with our winning technology. We're excited for the competition and will be cheering them on."

The team must wait until late September to receive this advanced HPC cluster giving them just enough time to prepare for the competition, which takes place in mid-November. "The later we get it, the newer it is, the less likely another team will make our system look outdated," Kim said.

The team has a slight advantage—their access to TACC researchers and TACC technology. For example, the students received log-in accounts for Ranger, one of the largest academic supercomputers in the world. This allows them to run applications and benchmarks remotely. In addition, the team can bounce ideas off the professionals at the center and get credible feedback in return.

These kids will be unstoppable as they learn from each other and from experts at TACC. They recognize the potential that this project poses to further their expertise in this technical field. "Our team is fully committed to the success of this project," Kim concluded.

August 17, 2010


The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin is one of the leading centers of computational excellence in the United States. The center's mission is to enable discoveries that advance science and society through the application of advanced computing technologies. To fulfill this mission, TACC identifies, evaluates, deploys, and supports powerful computing, visualization, and storage systems and software. TACC's staff experts help researchers and educators use these technologies effectively, and conduct research and development to make these technologies more powerful, more reliable, and easier to use. TACC staff also help encourage, educate, and train the next generation of researchers, empowering them to make discoveries that change the world.

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  • In November, a team from The University of Texas at Austin will compete in this year'sStudent Cluster Competition at the Supercomputing 2010 conference in New Orleans.
  • The competition challenges students to build, maintain, and run a cutting edge, commercially available HPC architecture on just 26 amps of energy.
  • The goal is to achieve the best cluster performance, with the most accurate outputs from application runs, while staying at or below the allotted energy budget.
  • The student team will work with TACC mentors, Dell hardware, and Linux software throughout the process.

Aaron Dubrow
Science and Technology Writer
aarondubrow@tacc.utexas.edu