Super quick and super smart

FAU-Team Student Cluster Competition
Even before the competition, Jan, Markus, Benedikt and Lisa (from left to right) invest a lot of time in working with supercomputers. (Image: FAU/Franziska Sponsel)

ISC, SC, ASC, SCC – what are all these abbreviations? They stand for international competitions with high performance computers – and teams of students at FAU take part.

More than 55 hours at one time, working through the day and night to build a super computer, optimising performance tests and using scientific software relating to physics, molecular biology or artificial intelligence. Only leaving the computer for a brief nap. And then, in the middle of the night, someone pulls the plug and all the equipment is switched off. Anyone who didn’t make sufficient backups is faced with hours and hours of lost work. And that’s meant to be fun? Jan, Lisa, Benedikt and Markus think so.

The teams are provided with high-performance computers (HPC) to assemble and use to solve tasks. (Image: Alexander Ditter)

The four students take part in competitions in Germany, China and the USA where that is exactly what can happen. Such Student Cluster Competitions (SSC) are held at the same time as international trade fairs and conferences. Teams have several days to build a supercomputer, install the necessary software and solve various problems. And at the American SCC held during the Supercomputing Conference the power is switched off in the middle of the night to check whether the participants have prepared a suitable disaster recovery strategy.


Special prize for FAU

Supercomputers are the quickest computers there are. One of the criteria for judging the students’ projects is therefore how quickly the computer can calculate. The jury use the figures as a basis for comparing the computers. The FAU team won a special award at the Frankfurt International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) as their computer was particularly quick – the greatest success to date for the FAU participants.

However, pursuing the trophy is only one aspect. According to Jan, there are a lot of other benefits besides: ‘You can meet new people and discuss how you solved certain problems’. It is not only other students that the participants meet. At the evening meal the teams may find themselves facing leading managers of blue chip companies such as Intel or Dell. Now and again students might even get an offer for a job or an internship.

The teams are provided with high-performance computers (HPC) to assemble and use to solve tasks. (Image: Alexander Ditter)

Diversity is important

Work begins weeks before the SCC. Students focus on the competitions for several months, first of all as part of a module during the semester and then in the direct preparatory phase. Teams have to apply first. Students have to state their qualifications and reasons for applying to take part in the SC and the ISC. ‘The USA is particularly keen for the team to be as diverse as possible, with students from various backgrounds taking part,’ explains Lisa. For the Asian competition, the Asia Supercomputer Community (ASC), tasks have to be solved in advance. Benedikt says, ‘it is quite a feat to be included in the 20 finalist teams.’


FAU took part in SC 2017 together with TU München as team ‘TUMany segFAUlts’. (Image: Alexander Ditter)

Friday in, Sunday out

Once the application is done, the semester break and the following weeks are extremely stressful. Students invest up to 20 hours a week for the SCC. When other students are enjoying their weekend, work is just starting for the SCC teams. ‘Sometimes we go into the room on Friday evening and don’t come out again until Sunday afternoon,’ reports Markus with a smile.

The effort involved puts a lot of potential candidates off. But all four agree – the stress is worth it. It is unbelievable how much students learn during the competition itself. Teams also have the opportunity to attend exhibitions and presentations or network during the evening programme and have fun celebrating with students from throughout the world. The Chair of Computer Science 3 (Computer Architecture) holds an information event about the competitions at the beginning of every semester.


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