A team of undergraduates from Bentley and Northeastern universities took first place in a faceoff with seriously tech-savvy contenders at the Supercomputing Conference, held in Colorado last November. The win clinched a coveted seat at the 2014 International Supercomputing Conference.
There was little time to savor victory, though, as team members set to training for the overseas challenge, which takes place this June in Leipzig, Germany. Task No. 1 was identifying what they did right in Denver. That competition involved a 48-hour marathon to build a cluster computer: a set of connected computers that work together in so many respects they can be viewed as a single system.
“As business students, we had an advantage in the planning and building phase of the competition, because we were able to think critically about what we were willing to give up and what we needed to hold on to, in terms of hardware,” says Conner Charlebois ’14, who joined fellow CIS major Nicholas Hentschel ’14 and Dmitry Veber ’14 (Actuarial Sciences) as Bentley members of the team. “It was really a cost–benefit analysis design exercise.”
Northeastern juniors Neel Shah and Tushar Swamy rounded out the team. Advisers were Irv Englander, professor emeritus (Bentley), David Yates, associate professor of computer information systems (Bentley); David Kaeli, professor of electrical and computer engineering (Northeastern), and PhD candidate Yash Ukidave (Northeastern).
The combination of technical skills and business acumen proved critical for a team that was likely considered the underdog among schools like Arizona State University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
The Bentley–NEU cluster computer was assembled for under $2,500, and ran four applications while consuming less than 15 amps of current — besting several teams that had an unlimited budget.
“The team differentiated themselves by infusing an open-compute design philosophy with state-of-the art technology developed for the gaming market,” explains Yates.
While high-level technical skills are obviously critical to building supercomputers, Yates and Englander also credit the team’s project management, time management and communication skills.
“An entrepreneurial spirit that drove our team to determine what they needed, reach out, and go beyond traditional channels to get help,” Englander adds. “The business mindset is that when you need to solve a problem, you work as a team to find a solution.”
The team competing in Germany includes two additional students, representing MIT and Northeastern, as well as another adviser, who is a research scientist at MIT. The challenge involves maximizing the system’s performance per watt (unit of electrical power), with clusters staying below a ceiling of 3,000 watts of power at all times.
“This is very different from the competition in Colorado,” says Yates. “There, the constraint that mattered ended up being the dollar budget rather than the power budget.”
Contenders also face unknown variables, adds Charlebois. “There are two mystery applications that won’t be revealed until the time of competition. So our team’s ability to think on its feet and strategize quickly will be even more valuable here.”