ECE Superstars win at supercomputers

When pro­fessor Dave Kaeli approached them about entering a super­com­puter com­pe­ti­tion, elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering stu­dents Neel Shah and Tushar Swamy had zero expe­ri­ence in the task at hand. “I had never even built a reg­ular com­puter,” said Shah, let alone a super one. But that didn’t stop them from signing up…nor from stealing the show entirely.

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with three stu­dents from Bentley Uni­ver­sity, the North­eastern duo built a super­com­puter within the nec­es­sary finan­cial and power con­straints laid out by the Stu­dent Cluster Com­pe­ti­tion. And then, over a 48-​​hour period last week, they let their com­puter run five data-​​intense appli­ca­tions in a neck-​​and-​​neck race to the win.

Seven other teams, hailing from as far away as Aus­tralia, also com­peted in the chal­lenge. But one thing set Northesatern’s approach above all the rest. “We chose the most uncon­ven­tional hard­ware out of all the other teams,” said Shah. Instead of building their com­puter with cen­tral pro­cessing units alone, they also used graph­ical pro­cessing units.

Both Shah and Swamy had four years of under­grad­uate research expe­ri­ence in Kaeli’s lab where they learned the ins and outs of the GPU. This spe­cial­ized elec­tronic cir­cuit was designed for pro­cessing images, as its name implies, but in Kaeli’s lab they’re also using it to process mas­sive data sets in par­allel. The approach didn’t only give them good power effi­ciency, it also brought their costs down.

“There used to be some­thing called the Top 500 super­com­puters,” said Swamy. “But they were extremely power hungry. So now there’s the Green 500, too.” In keeping with that over­ar­ching shift in the com­mu­nity toward more effi­cient high per­for­mance com­puting, this year’s com­pe­ti­tion had two tracks for the first time ever: one restricted only by power, and one restricted by power and cost. Shah and Swamy’s team entered the latter, or “com­modity” track.

To achieve high per­for­mance without spending a lot, they used a low-​​cost advanced plat­form called an APU, or accel­er­a­tion pro­cessing unit. Made by Advanced Micro Devices, the APU com­bines both CPUs and GPUs on a single board. The approach won them first place in the com­modity class  but it also stood up rather well against the stan­dard teams: When com­peting against com­puters that cost nearly a mil­lion dol­lars, they said, the Northeastern/​Bentley com­puter came in fourth place.

Team open compute hard at work. Photo via David Yates.
Team open com­pute hard at work. Photo via David Yates.


While the actual com­pe­ti­tion was a har­rowing 48 hours of sleep­less­ness, spiked with moments of hair-​​pulling stress, like when they dis­cov­ered in the middle of one run that it wouldn’t finish in time, the whole endeavor involved a much larger commitment. The team spent months working on their com­puter, com­mu­ni­cating with the Waltham-​​based Bentley stu­dents using things like Google hang­outs along the way.

Before they arrived at the event in Denver, they’d made sure the com­puter was able to suc­cess­fully process all of the appli­ca­tions they knew would be in the com­pe­ti­tion, as well as readying it for a mys­tery pro­gram that wouldn’t be revealed until they set foot in the con­fer­ence hall.

They also made sure to keep a little bit of the computer’s pro­cessing power avail­able during every run to use for queueing up the next run. Some­thing in this com­bi­na­tion of good time-​​management skills, cross-​​institutional col­lab­o­ra­tion, and thinking out­side the hard­ware box bought them their suc­cess, said Swamy.

And while they may not have had pre­vious expe­ri­ence building com­puters from scratch, Shah and Swamy don’t plan to stop now. They found out during the com­pe­ti­tion that they’re pro­posal for the inter­na­tional super­com­puting cluster chal­lenge in June was accepted. Next stop, Germany.


Related Faculty: David Kaeli

Related Departments:Electrical & Computer Engineering