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Student Cluster Competition Offers a Gateway for Budding HPC Professionals

Jenett Tillotson is a senior HPC systems engineer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). As if that weren’t enough to fill her time, she’s also the Student Cluster Competition (SCC) Chair for SC23. 

With sponsorships from hardware and software vendor partners, the SCC gives students an arena to compete and show their skills while designing and building small computing clusters. Recently, the SCC committee held a webinar to inform students about how the SCC works and what they can expect. For anyone who missed it, the SSC23 webinar and its accompanying presentation are available online:

Hands-On HPC Learning

To learn more about what the SCC has to offer, we spoke with Tillotson about her thoughts on the program and how she got involved.

Jenett Tillotson (right)

National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)

Q: What is the SCC, and why do you believe it is valuable?

Tillotson: The SCC is composed of teams of six undergraduate students who bring a small cluster to SC and compete in a 48-hour head-to-head challenge involving running real-world HPC applications. Teams often partner with a vendor who provides the hardware, but this is not a requirement. They can bring hardware their institution provides if they wish. The hardware must fit into a 4000-W [watt] power budget, and successful teams are able to tune the applications to best run on their hardware within that budget. Vendors use the competition to showcase their bleeding-edge hardware. Students who participate gain real-world experience setting up HPC hardware and running HPC applications. They also get opportunities to experience the SC conference and network with the HPC community. 

Q: How did you become a part of the competition? What’s your SC story?

Tillotson: I became part of the competition in 2015 when the SCC16 chair, Stephen Harrell, asked me to be his SCC Infrastructure Chair. I had worked with Stephen before on the ACM SIGHPC SYSPROS [Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on High Performance Computing, Systems Professionals] chapter creation, which led him to include me on his committee. I helped out with the SCC infrastructure in 2015, and then chaired that position in 2016 and 2017. However, 2015 wasn’t my first SC. My first SC was Pittsburgh in 2004. I was working at Purdue at the time in their visualization center, and we were partnered with Advanced Cluster Technologies helping develop a demo for their booth. This was also the year I started in HPC. I soon discovered the “SC SysAdmin BoF,” which got me involved with the HPC Systems Professional community and eventually led to the creation of the ACM SIGHPC SYSPROS chapter.

Q: What do students learn during the competition? Maybe more broadly, why should students sign up for this?

Tillotson: Learning HPC from a textbook is difficult. For HPC, it’s best to learn hands-on. Students who take part in the SCC get the opportunity to setup and run on real, cutting-edge HPC hardware. We use real-world applications that they would encounter in HPC, which teams learn how to build and tune for their particular hardware. They learn skills from system administration all the way to application tuning. Students discover what they are interested in about HPC and are steered towards particular careers in HPC.

Q: What does the competition bring to the conference as a whole? Why does SC benefit from the competition? 

Tillotson: The SCC is important to SC because it helps build the next generation of HPC. There’s very little that universities offer in the way of HPC. Students often stumble into the Students@SC program and that one experience shapes their entire career. The SCC is a large part of that student-to-staff pipeline. It’s also a place for vendors to show off the latest and greatest hardware available, although at a small scale. Both of these components are important to the future of HPC, and the SCC helps develop and showcase both.

Q: What would you say to a student considering signing up for the competition? What should they know and what would you say to persuade them to join?

Tillotson: Students who are interested in building a team should contact the SCC Committee (link below). They can ask any questions about the rules or to get advice on how to build a successful team. There are several rules that are different from previous years, including new per-node power limits, a power budget for networking equipment, and new rules requiring half of the team members to have never participated in the SCC previously. Viewing the SCC23 informational webinars also can help. Again, they are available online at:

Learn More & Apply

Get your team together and apply for the SCC. Applications close Monday, May 15.

If you have questions about SCC applications, please contact the program committee.

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