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Challenging the challenge

July 2, 2015

What is life without a challenge? What is a climber that reaches the top of a mountain by helicopter? Does innovation ever come without a challenge? We, the Mont-Blanc climbers team, are one of eleven teams selected to participate in the 4th HPCAC-ISC Student Cluster Challenge (SCC) to be held this July in Frankfurt. And we are not going for the easy solution.

The idea of applying to this competition was motivated by our work and strong collaboration with the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and the Mont-Blanc project. Mont-Blanc is an EU-funded project that investigates the possibility of using mobile technology for high performance computing (HPC). I still remember when I saw a reminder of the SCC deadline and suggested the idea to my colleagues. They were very excited but we were only three people with just two weeks left to apply. Immediately, I contacted three other university friends and they also loved the idea.

So, we asked the technical coordinator of the Mont-Blanc project, Filippo Mantovani, to be our advisor for the competition. In a few days we had the team created but we still had a lot of things to sort out: decide what hardware to use, secure a sponsorship, and write a meaningful proposal. One might think time was too short for all these tasks, but in the end we completed it all and even created a video of our preparation!


While deciding on the hardware for the ARM Team Barcelona

competition, we considered two options: using a standard commodity HPC hardware configuration or implementing a completely new approach with an ARM-based cluster. Even though the latter is not widely used in HPC, we had two reasons behind our strong enthusiasm for trying a new cluster architecture. Firstly, nowadays the power wall is a big problem in HPC, so we believe that optimizations must be done not only for performance, but also for power efficiency. Secondly, disruptive thinking is needed in HPC to pave the road towards exascale. The decision was made, and we ended up with a double challenge; not only did we apply for the SCC on top of our busy lives, but we did so using an ARM-based cluster for the very first time in this competition. Dangerous choice? We’ll see.

Fortunately, our proposal was accepted! And then, the real work started. We organized meetings to distribute the work and help each other with our tasks. Luckily, we are a heterogeneous team, where each of us has expertise in a different area, so we prepared training sessions for the rest of the team to balance our knowledge.

The first challenge was to compile and execute the applications required for the competition. This may seem straightforward, but it took a bit more time than expected on our platform compared to a traditional HPC cluster. We managed to run the applications required for the competition plus some additional ones. Currently, we are analyzing and optimizing them to make a better use of our platform. We are also preparing reports on performance and power consumption profiles of the applications to understand how well established applications behave with our unconventional system design.

Is ours a potential technology for future supercomputers? Do you want to share our challenge? Are you interested in seeing the results?

Follow us on twitter for updates and come meet us at booth #422 of the Student Cluster Competition or at the joint European Exascale Projects, at booth #634. We are looking forward to having lively discussions with you.

Are you interested in learning more about research on Exascale in Europe? If so, register for the workshop: “Is Europe Ready For Exascale? A Summary of Three Years of European Exascale Research” held on Thursday, July 16, 9am – 4pm. For more information, please visit

About the blogger

Luna Backes is a master student of the Master in Innovation and Research in Informatics, specialization in HPC at Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC). She is also a research assistant at Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), working on the Mont-Blanc project. She graduated in computer engineering in January 2015 from UPC in Spain. She did an Erasmus exchange and an internship at the University of Edinburgh in 2014 being part of the PAMELA project, porting and optimizing computer vision kernels for mobile platforms. She also did an internship at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia) within the PRACE Summer of HPC in 2013.