Sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn. This saying couldn't be more fitting for the GCS-sponsored team TUMany segFAUlts (pronounced "too many segfaults"), that recently returned from this year's student cluster competition (SCC) at the Supercomputing Conference 2017 (SC17) in Denver, Colorado.
The six-person team representing both the Technische Universität München (TUM) and the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), arrived in Denver being talked about as a serious contender, but it rather quickly saw its hopes swept away when—even before the competition’s starting signal—unforeseen technical problems jeopardised its chances of staying in the running for any of the titles.
Unceasingly fighting the technical obstacles resulted in constantly being "one step behind," and the German students eventually completed the 48-hour, non-stop high-performance computing challenge in position 13 (of 16 teams) with the realisation that things don't always go according to plan—just as it is in real applications in high-performance computing, let alone in real life.
"When it rains, it pours", commented Alexander Ditter, FAU coach of the German students, who lamented the results for the six bachelor students who were denied all chances by a tiny yet imperatively necessary technical component. The students' compute cluster had been equipped with the wrong power supplies. "You should think that at an international HPC conference there would be adaptor and transformer devices available everywhere... somewhere..., which was not the case. On top of everything, it was Veterans Day—a major national holiday—with no shop open to buy a transformer on Saturday and closed shops on Sunday as well", added Ditter. Evaluating all possible options, the students eventually managed to get hold of two power converters from one of the competing teams (Georgia Tech) and, thanks to a local electrician who crafted the necessary cable components, were finally able to get the system up and running by late Sunday afternoon.
By then, the students were way behind schedule, and their spirits—and motivation—had suffered a severe blow. However, like true sportsmen, they gave their best and worked their way through the benchmarks and the following 48-hour challenge, knowing that essentially all of their competitors had a head-start they could never make up.
Despite fighting against the technical downfalls, the ticking clock, and their disappointment, the students maintained their drive which was well noted by the many conference attendees stopping by at their booth, such as Dr. Bernd Mohr (Jülich Supercomputing Centre), general chair of this year's Supercomputing Conference. He had no shortage of encouragement for the bachelor students, and unceasingly reaffirmed his appreciation for the only German representative in this year's student cluster challenge to keep going and never give up.
“Regardless of this bitter disappointment, we were happy to be here,” summarized Svilen Stefanov, captain of team TUMany segFAUlts. "It was a great experience for all of us—we made new international friends, and we got a taste of world-class high-performance computing. Of course it is hard to accept that all our relentless work in getting prepared for this competition ultimately was in vain, but: C'est la vie."