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UWC student computer boffins victorious at National Computer Cluster Competition and head to Texas to prepare for the International Competition

The Dean of the Science Faculty, Professor Mike Davies-Coleman, is ecstatic about the achievement of this group of students and indicated that he would prefer their voices to be heard through their story, which they had submitted to him. The team leader, Eugene de Beste, unfolded the events leading to their remarkable achievement , expressed in some excerpts from his submission:

It started with our soon to be mentor, Motse Lehata, approaching us individually about a competition he’d heard about. The competition was at the CHPC (Center for High Performance Computing), and it was about building computers. It was called the Student Cluster Competition - what’s not to love? Motse approached Eugene de Beste, Warren Jacobus, Nicole Thomas and Saeed Natha to form his team. All of us are in the Computer Science field, except Nicole who is a Physics student. Even though the majority of the team was from a computing background, none of us really had any real idea of how clusters work.

For the first round of the competition, we were sent to Johannesburg. We stayed at the Sophia Town residence of the University of Johannesburg, where we would get up at half past six in the morning to travel across the road and sit in a lecture venue in the university’s campus for 4 hours, followed by 3 hours of a practical session (with breaks for food in between, of course). The practicals were challenging and we were not exactly prepared for what we were asked to do. We would often find ourselves sitting in one of the member’s rooms in  the residence until late at night trying to get things working. That was part of what the first round was about.  They chose the teams that could hold their own without absolute instruction.

At the end of the first round, each team was asked to create a design for a cluster and to present it to a panel of judges. The panel consisted of  the two individuals who had run the competition as well as members of the South African winning team of ISC ‘13 (International Student Cluster Challenge). As one team was done, the next was called in. We were quite nervous, because we had no idea what the other teams’ designs looked like and whether we had a chance. The interview went quite well, apart from one or two questions they asked that we weren’t prepared for.

After about two months of waiting, we received an email inviting us to the second round of the CHPC Student Cluster Competition. We were overcome with joy and nervousness. We were now asked to design a cluster configuration from a parts list that was provided by Dell.

We consulted with Peter Van Heusden, who works for SANBI at UWC, about the design and he was extremely helpful. From the design phase, Peter took over the role of teaching us what we needed to know for the competition, as even though Motse was our mentor, he was not allowed to give technical assistance as per the rules of the competition.

Our design was complete and in December 2013, we had to physically assemble our cluster designs and to install the required software, as well as prepare and run benchmarks against the other teams at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC). It was a very difficult period, with a lot of pressure. We all felt moments when we just wanted to quit.

We managed to take home the trophy although we had experienced an enormous issue with one of the benchmarks. We learnt afterwards that the competition was weighted not only on performance, but also in terms of team dynamics, efficiency and other aspects that we were not aware of. We were announced as winners of the national Student Cluster Competition on the last day of the competition, after the judges had reviewed the performance of the different teams. Four individuals from other teams were chosen to accompany us to the international competition, with two being part of the team and the other two being reserves.

On the 24th of January, we will travel to  Dell’s centre in Austin, Texas in the United States of America , to receive training from them. The last round of this competition, ISC ‘14, takes place in Leipzig, Germany, where we will be doing much of the same as in the national  competition, but on a much larger scale and with teams from all over the world competing against one another.

UWC is extremely proud of our winning team and congratulates the students on this outstanding achievement. We wish them well for ISC’14- there is a space in a display cabinet reserved for that trophy too—no pressure.

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