ECE Students Represent U.S. in International Supercomputing Competition

in ECE Spotlight Student

By Sara Elizabeth Cody

A group of six BU students were the sole team from the U. S. to compete in the world’s largest supercomputing hackathon in Wuhan, China in April.

“Supercomputing uses very powerful hardware to run large and complex programs,” explains Hannah Gibson (ECE’17), a member of the BU Green Team who competed at the Asia Supercomputing Community Student Supercomputer Challenge. “It’s used in CGI for movies and for weather modeling-huge programs that require a lot of power. In the competition, the goal is to get the best performance with consideration for power and speed with the setup and software you designed and built.”

The competition featured 16 teams selected from 146 applicants that hailed from around the globe, from China and Russia to Hungary and Colombia. Each team provided a wish list of hardware to the sponsoring company, Inspur, and had to prepare software in advance to bring with them to the competition. Teams had four days total for the competition, including time for setup and installation.

“It was awesome being in a different country and seeing how our team stacked up to teams from all around the world,” says Wasim Khan (ECE’17), a member of the BU Green Team. “It was interesting to compete against other teams who come from schools that have supercomputing as a major and to see that we, an extracurricular student-run group, gave them a run for their money.”

In computing, performance is often measured by floating-point operations per second, or flops. The higher the number of flops, the better the computer performance and, in competition, the higher the score. Teams were given six applications, where they were tasked with rewriting portions of each program to work better on the target hardware, optimizing it to work on their architecture and complete real-world scientific workloads while obeying the competition constraint of 3,000 watts of power maximum.

Five of the applications were programmed to run on their own hardware setup, or cluster, to measure the number of flops it generated. The other application was run on the Tianhe-2, currently the world’s fastest supercomputer. The score was an algorithm that was based on the number of problem sets, or workloads, that were completed, with consideration for accuracy, timing and flops generated, if applicable. Awards were given to top scorers, “most innovative,” and “best overall.” In order to support the ASC mission to promote supercomputing outreach, teams were encouraged to tweet throughout the competition and the team with the most retweets was awarded the “most popular” designation.

“This is an impressive and highly motivated group of students who had to specify and acquire equipment, optimize the configurations, tune, and in some cases refactor the applications, and ultimately qualify for these competitions entirely of their own volition,” says Professor Martin Herbordt (ECE), who is the faculty advisor for the group. “It goes without saying that students learn a lot in their classes, but this type of professional, real-world experience that is self-guided takes their learning to a whole other level.”

The BU Green Team represented BU’s High Performance Computing (BUHPC) team, led by Winston Chen (CE’17) and Huy Lee (CS’16), is affiliated with BUILDs, the BU hackerspace that provides resources for students to undertake technology projects. Since their return from China, BUHPC is fundraising to attend the ISC Student Cluster Competition in Germany in June. In addition to competing, the event also includes professional development workshops and networking opportunities for students interested in the field of supercomputing.