Cluster Devils prepare for battle in cyberspace
ASU engineering students take on a supercomputing challenge before an audience of industry heavyweights
After months of intense training, a team of Arizona State University students is set to compete in an especially challenging marathon on an international stage. But it isn’t a road race. This race takes place in cyberspace.
Six students in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering will have their computing skills vigorously tested in a contest that demands roughly 48 straight hours of brain power, technical ability, and mental and physical endurance.
The ASU Cluster Devils will face several teams from universities in the United States and other countries in the Student Cluster Competition during SC09 – the Supercomputing Conference 2009 – Nov. 14-20 in Portland, Ore.
Cluster computing involves networking (or “clustering”) at least several advanced computers together to provide the computing capacity necessary to work out especially complex mathematical and technical problems.
“It’s about having many computers communicating with each other, except these computers are powerful enough to do something in hours that would take your typical personal computer at home about a week or so to do,” says Benjamin Jimenez, a senior ASU aerospace engineering student.
He is joined on the ASU Cluster Devils by Richard Wellington, a senior computer science student; Tricia Hurd, a senior chemical engineering student; Megan Kearl, a junior computer science and biology and society student; Patrick Lu, a junior computer systems engineering student; and Michael Johanson, a senior computer science student.
At SC09 they will be given a series of science and engineering problems to analyze and solve in an allotted period of time – and with an allotted limit of power – using an array of computers they have assembled and linked.
“Sometimes we will all be working at once, other times we’ll go in shifts,” Jimenez says. “It’s pretty much nonstop for a couple of days. You usually end up with students sleeping under tables and behind banks of computers.”
The competition is designed to test students’ mastery of analyzing codes and optimizing computing performance. “They give you tough problems that reveal your ability to think logically and creatively,” Wellington says. “It really tests your levels of patience and determination. It’s a mental marathon.”
Fortunately, the Cluster Devils have strong allies. The team is sponsored by the Microsoft and IBM companies. Microsoft’s high-performance computing team has provided software and IBM has provided hardware for the Cluster Devils’ systems.
The team will use Microsoft’s Windows High Performance Computing Server 2008 and IBM’s System x iDataPlex.
Both companies also have sent representatives to help demonstrate the equipment for the Cluster Devils, and provided team members trips to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., to get training from professional computer scientists and engineers.
“The trips were phenomenal,” Jimenez says.
“We’re excited about this competition,” says Matt Blythe, a member of Microsoft’s Windows marketing team. “This is a fun part of our academic outreach. This will help us test the quality of our products, to see how well students are able to use this technology and be successful.”
In addition, the team has been able to make use of hardware, work space and power sources at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering High Performance Computing Initiative (HPCI) center. The Cluster Devils are now part of HPCI’s undergraduate student outreach team.
The Cluster Devils also are getting the benefit of coaching from Earl Duque, manager of applied research for Intelligent Light, a high-tech company specializing in high-performance computing for fluid flow simulations (www.ilight.com).
Duque also is a mechanical engineering associate research professor at Northern Arizona University (NAU). A former member of an advanced computational research methods group for NASA, he currently teaches and develops high-performance computing software and methods for computational fluid dynamics.
Team members are drawing on his expertise in these advanced areas of engineering and computing to guide their competition strategy.
The Cluster Devils will compete in front of a global audience, including some of the computer industry’s leading companies and research institutions. SC09 is expected to draw several thousand participants and more than 10,000 overall attendees from throughout the world.
Besides Microsoft and IBM, such companies as Hewlett Packard, Lockheed Martin, Intel and Dell will be represented, as well as national laboratories such as Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos, and NASA labs.
Along with exposure to heavyweights in the computer world, ASU team members get an opportunity to gain engineering career experience beyond the classroom.
Two members of last year’s team, including Patrick Lu, were hired for internships at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a result of their participation in the student supercomputing competition.
Jimenez and Wellington also were on last year’s team – the first ASU student team ever to compete at the supercomputing conference.
They say there’s more of a lure to the event than the spirit of competition. “All of our team members either got internships or made some contacts that could lead to future opportunities,” Jimenez says.
Supercomputing “is a fascinating and cutting-edge field that’s going to be more important in every area of science and engineering,” he says. “I think more students need to become aware of what great opportunities there are.”
For more information, see the ASU Cluster Devil’s Web site and blog at http://clusterdevils.com/