Team South Africa Prep for "Three-peat" in Student Cluster Competition

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To say that “everything is bigger in Texas” is a cliché, overlooks that clichés are often rooted in truth.

I recently had chance to catch up with several university students who had traveled half-way around the world to Dell’s main campus and I heard them say more than once “I didn’t expect everything to be so big!” They weren’t talking about the square footage of our home state itself, but the high performance computing (HPC) environments they were here to see.

This was no ordinary school field trip. These students were representing the South Africa Center for High Performance Computing and they were here for serious preparation before the 4th HPCAC-ISC Student Cluster Competition (SCC) in Frankfurt, Germany. As a sponsor for Team South Africa, Dell was doing our part to help them prepare.

“We bring them here for a week to meet with our engineering and research teams, discuss performance, tuning, storage and file systems, and give them more insight into HPC best practices,” said Vernon Nicholls, advisor to the team from Dell South Africa.

“The amount of information is amazing, and the people we’ve met have been incredible,” student Jenalea Miller told me when I asked about their time in Texas.

In addition to our own Dell labs where I caught up with the team, they also spent time on The University of Texas (UT) campus at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). TACC designs and operates some of the world's most powerful computing resources. They are able to boast that 198 research projects from 108 institutions are currently exploring 61 fields of science on their systems.

“The UT campus is really different from our own,” said Nabeel Rajab. “It’s massive in scale, and at TACC we got to see custom-built Dell clusters.”

All of the members of this year’s team are electrical engineering students at University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, a public research university in Johannesburg. The success of previous South African teams, also sponsored by Dell, in the SCC drew them to explore HPC.

“The Student Cluster Challenge is one of my favorite programs that Dell supports – and has turned out to be a fun and unexpected program to be involved with,” said Christine Fronczak after Team South Africa won in 2013. “Under a theme of inspiring the next generation HPC professional, Dell has sponsored multiple teams in the SCC for several years.”

Team South Africa repeated as the SCC champions at ISC in 2014, besting 10 other teams from seven different countries on their way to claim the overall title. This year’s team didn’t seem to be wasting time worrying about following in their footsteps, though. When I asked about expectations for this trip to Austin, they were all business.

“We wanted to nail down the preliminary design of our cluster, and we made a lot of important decisions,” said James Allingham.

The theme of size came up again as he talked about seeing Stampede, TACC’s supercomputer that recently made headlines for helping astronomers better understand the physics behind galaxy and star formation.

“When you’re talking scale — that was intense,” Allingham said.

So with their views expanded, but with a lot of hard work still in front of them before the international competition in Germany, I wondered if the team had given thought to their long-term career goals.

“I’ve grown so much in this field that I wouldn’t want to waste it,” Rajab said. “The expert knowledge we’ve gained through this program and the opportunity to meet the experts we have met has really given us a jumpstart.”

It’s something his team mate Rob Clucas would recommend to others, as well.

“Participating in this competition means you get to learn a lot – you learn a lot about the HPC architecture, but also about working in a team,” Clucas said.

They’ve got a lot of intense work ahead of them now as they have returned to South Africa. They will be building, testing and refining their cluster. Then in June they’ll break it all down, carry it to Frankfurt and rebuild it for the competition where they will be scored on the cluster’s general performance, applications that will be run on it and an interview by representatives of the SCC board.

Rajab hopes the results will show the world that South Africa has a lot of talent.

“Though the competition and interacting with the others teams from around our country, I’ve met some very smart people,” he said. “There are lots of really good people that didn’t make this team.”

But, he also had good things to say about Dell’s home town:

“You always hear of Silicon Valley, but there’s a lot of amazing computing happening in Austin.”

 

Pictured left to right: Ari Isaac Croock, Nabeel Rajab, Munira Hussain, systems sr. engineer High Performance Computing at Dell, Robert John Clucas , Jenalea Norma Miller, James Urquhart Allingham, and Sasha Tarryn Naidoo 

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