Skip to main content

Six undergraduate students will represent ORNL at the annual Student Cluster Competition at SC19 in Denver

This year, the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) will be hosting a team at the 13th Student Cluster Competition (SCC) in Denver, CO.

Developed in 2007 and integrated within the International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage, and Analysis (SC Conference), the SCC gives undergraduate and high school students a chance to participate in the world of high-performance computing (HPC) through fast-paced competition and hands-on learning. The teams consist of six students who, with the help of an advisor, use resources provided by hardware and software vendor sponsors to design and build their own computer cluster.

Mentoring the team will be primary advisor Chris Muzyn, assisted by Joseph Voss and Bronson Messer. Both Muzyn and Voss currently work as systems engineers at the DOE Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF) at ORNL, and the two will spend this summer preparing the team for the SCC. Messer, a computational scientist with the OLCF, has helped judge previous SCC events.

“Basically, every team has their own hardware and cluster and they are given a list of applications to run on their cluster,” Muzyn said. “The winner of the competition is the team that can run those applications the fastest in the end. To prepare, we’re spending all summer compiling those applications and getting everyone familiar with how a cluster works so that when they get to the competition, they can actually run those applications.”

All of the students’ preparation over the summer will culminate in a non-stop, 48-hour competition in which their designed clusters will be tasked with a real-world scientific workload, with awards given for categories such as highest LINPACK and High Performance Conjugate Gradient benchmarks, as well as overall performance. Each cluster will also be subject to constraints such as material cost, energy expenditure, and application time—important considerations in non-academic HPC applications

A few members of the cross-institutional group of interns seen here will start the 24-hour competition on November 18 at SC19.

Students from all disciplines can take part in the competition and, for many of them, it will be their first hands-on experience with the daunting field.

“The student cluster competition is about introducing students to HPC and getting them involved with that environment,” Voss said. “It gives them the opportunity to have free technical reign to stand up whatever they think would be a good cluster to run, and to be as competitive as they can to run scientific applications at a low power level quickly and accurately.”

Muzyn and Voss are in a unique position to coach ORNL’s team: both participated in the SCC as undergraduate students, Muzyn in 2014 and Voss in 2016.

“I remember everything that my mentors did for me in 2014, so I’m trying to make sure that I have the same quality of program here,” Muzyn said. “I think it gives me an advantage that I’ve seen the competition done before as opposed to someone who would come in cold and not know what happens.”

“When I did the competition, my mentors did a really good job of laying the groundwork for me and telling me the direction I needed to go in, but then letting me struggle in the dark for a while to figure out what was going on,” Voss said, “and I’m trying to do the same thing with them. I feel like at times that’s frustrating, but it’s also really helpful. You’re expected to figure a lot of it out on your own, and I thought that was the most rewarding experience; getting comfortable figuring things out by yourself.”

In a field as diverse as computational science, events like the SCC can be invaluable in helping students discover where their passions lie.

“The Student Cluster Competition is multifaceted,” Muzyn said. “You have people running the hardware, people compiling and optimizing applications, people doing visualization stuff; there are lots of different things you can gain an interest in. When I started preparing for the SCC, I had no direction in my career path. I personally found the systems track to be interesting, and now, five years later, I’m a system administrator.”

Although previous ORNL teams have consisted only of University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) students, this year the lab will host a cross-institutional group consisting of

  • Nicholas Bugueno—UTK
  • Jenna Delozier—Maryville College
  • Omar Trejo-Medina—UTK
  • Ria Patel—UTK
  • Taylor Gladney—UTK
  • Jordan Webb—Arizona State University

The SC19 SCC will be held Monday–Wednesday, November 18–20, 2019.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit