The National Institute for Computational Sciences

NICS Student Cluster Team

Students are Training for International Challenge


The National Institute for Computational Sciences (NICS) is again sponsoring and mentoring a Student Cluster Competition team for SC14, the world's largest high-performance computing (HPC) event. The students have begun their months-long training with mentors Dr. Vincent Betro of the Scientific Computing group and Paul Peltz of Operations at NICS leading up to the event, which will take place during the SC14 supercomputing conference in New Orleans, Nov. 16–21.

The Student Cluster Competition is described on the SC14 website as a "real-time, non-stop 48-hour challenge in which teams of undergraduate and/or high school students assemble a small cluster [a set of connected computers that work together in parallel] on the SC14 exhibit floor and race to demonstrate the greatest sustained performance across a series of applications."

Betro and Peltz recently took the students and their families on a tour of the supercomputing facilities at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which houses the Titan, Gaia, and Darter supercomputers, and has been the location of the now-decommissioned Kraken. The tour also included the Spallation Neutron Source at ORNL. The SNS is a one-of-a-kind research facility that provides the most intense pulsed neutron beams in the world for scientific research and industrial development. In the last leg of the tour, the students visited the Graphite Reactor at ORNL, a sort of raison d’être for the lab, as this was the location of the first sustained nuclear chain reaction and the basis for the Manhattan Project, which created Oak Ridge.


The NICS SC14 Student Cluster Competition team has also participated in weekly lunch-and-learn meetings at ORNL with their mentors to add to their knowledge of computational sciences through presentations by the mentors as well as some experts in the competition applications from UT-Knoxville and ORNL.

The team members come from computer engineering and computer science backgrounds but have shown interests in different areas of the field. Most have built and maintained their own desktops and have used a version of the Linux computer operating system as a development environment.

"Students are very excited about this competition since it provides them with an opportunity to work with cutting-edge hardware and software as well as round out their HPC education far beyond what is offered at the undergraduate level in coursework," Betro says.

Betro and Peltz selected the students based on their strengths and interests in different HPC areas, such as operating systems, compiling, hardware, and visualization, to build a well-rounded team. Each team member will be responsible for learning and taking the lead in different areas of the competition, including application development, cluster administration, and application visualization. And while each student has an area of expertise, he will also be involved in all aspects of preparation during the months ahead to respond with maximal effect during the competition.


The students' hardware for the competition is being donated by Cray, Intel, Mellanox, and NVIDIA. The students will be responsible for assembling, installing, and maintaining the cluster. They will need to tune both the hardware and the software to optimize the FLOPS/watt of the cluster to meet the only limiting factor in the competition, which is 26-amp power. FLOPS refers to floating-point operations per second, a measure of computer speed.

Scott Gibson, science writer, NICS

Article posting date: 18 June 2014

About JICS and NICS: The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences (JICS) was established by the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to advance scientific discovery and state-of-the-art engineering, and to further knowledge of computational modeling and simulation. JICS realizes its vision by taking full advantage of petascale-and-beyond computers housed at ORNL and by educating a new generation of scientists and engineers well versed in the application of computational modeling and simulation for solving the most challenging scientific and engineering problems. JICS runs the National Institute for Computational Sciences (NICS), which had the distinction of deploying and managing the Kraken supercomputer. NICS is a leading academic supercomputing center and a major partner in the National Science Foundation's eXtreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment, known as XSEDE. In November 2012, JICS sited the Beacon system, which set a record for power efficiency and captured the number one position on the Green500 list of the most energy-efficient computers.