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Student Cluster Competition Champions

UWC'S Supersmart Supercomputing Students win SA Student Cluster

Four young students from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) proved their supercomputing skills when they won the second annual Centre for High Power Computing (CHPC) South African Student Cluster Challenge last week.

The Cluster Challenge, which began in July, is designed to give undergraduate students at South African universities exposure to the high power performance computing industry – an industry that's increasingly crucial to researchers in fields as disparate as astrophysics, molecular biology and even history, where there are complicated operations to perform on often massive data sets.

Over the past few decades, computer clusters (two or more computers connected in such a way that they are able to act as a single computer with far more power) have changed high performance computing, making massive computing power available to research teams with modest budgets and allowing more flexibility and customisability than traditional supercomputers.

Team Youdubs – consisting of  Warren Jacobus, Saeed Natha, Eugene de Beste, Nicole Thomas and mentor Motse Lehata – was one of several teams of South African university undergraduates who spent months designing, configuring, testing and tuning their clusters consisting of R250,000 worth of equipment provided courtesy of Dell, HP and Cray, before finally facing off at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from Saturday 30 November 2013 to Thursday 5 December 2013.

Teams were judged on team dynamics, cluster design and benchmarking – how swiftly and accurately they could work through a set of real-world scientific applications. Team Youdubs had a decent design, pushed hard on the benchmarks, and – perhaps most importantly – worked really well together.

Thomas, the only member of the team not studying computer science (she's studying physics, with the intention of becoming an astrophysicist), explains: “We had our ups and downs, but we were able to keep things together and work as a team, and I think that is what got us as far as we have.”

Jacobus also thinks teamwork was key to their success. “We all knew each other's strengths and weaknesses, and we knew how to assign – and switch – roles as necessary. And over the course of the competition, our ability to absorb and understand new concepts shot through the roof.”

That’s particularly true for Natha. “When I joined the team, I didn’t even know what cluster computing was,” he explains, “but the challenge helped me realise how useful and widespread the applications of this type of computing are.”

As well as teaching competitors about the technical aspects of computing, the Student Cluster Challenge exposes students to the kinds of environments used in real research – and has often led to internships, jobs and improved university computing systems.

Team Youdubs will form the core of the team that will go on to compete at the International Supercomputing Competition in Germany in June 2014, joined by the University of Fort Hare's Ellen Nxala, and Stellenbosch University student Pieter Malan (with North West University's Gerhardus Bodenstein and NMMU's Kevin Beyers identified as reserves). They have some big shoes to fill, as last year's winners also went on to take the ISC crown earlier this year.

Team coach, Peter van Heusden, Systems Administrator at the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI), who helped them to set up their training cluster at UWC, to learn to install the required software, and to get the benchmarks running, believes they're up to the challenge – but it won't be easy. “There's a lot of training to do between now and next year – and the students need to keep up with their regular studies as well. So it's going to be a tense but exciting time.”

“There's a lot of pressure on us to live up to last year's South African team's performance,” says De Beste, “and we'll be spending a lot of time practicing and researching to improve our skills. But we're definitely looking forward to seeing how well we can do against students from all over the world.”