South Africa has once more excelled at the annual International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) 2020 Student Cluster Competition, which took place virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The event, regarded as the world's premier high-performance computing competition for students, is held annually on the sidelines of the ISC in Frankfurt, Germany.


The team of six undergraduate students flew the flag high, scooping second prize, it was announced during an online event on 24 June. South Africa has a proud history at the event – it has now participated seven times and made it onto the podium every time. The country has taken first prize on three occasions, placed second three times and third once.


The team fielded by the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) were among 82 university students from 11 countries who spent almost a month working feverishly on a cluster located at the National Supercomputing Centre of Singapore in a bid to win the overall prize. The virtual competition ran from 1 to 24 June.


This year's competition was designed to contribute to the global fight against COVID‑19, and included applications addressing education and applied learning towards accelerating bioscience research and discovery. The teams were tasked with testing several applications that are being used by scientists and researchers in their search for a cure for the coronavirus.


Team South Africa comprised six undergraduates from Wits University, the University of the Western Cape and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, namely Guy Axelrod, Victoria Bench, Michael Beukman, Sivenathi Madlokazi, Mikhail Vink and Kalreen Govender, with Stephanie Agenbag as the reserve member.


Team South Africa is one of few teams made up solely of undergraduate students, as well as one of few that do not include the same members twice. The team progressed to the international round after winning the national round at the CHPC's National Conference in Johannesburg in December 2019.


During the competition, which participants described as incredibly intense, the teams vied to obtain the greatest performance across a series of benchmarks and applications. For the students to spend almost a month on the competition shows the extent of their dedication, and the team, along with their mentors from the CHPC, are to be congratulated.


The efforts put in by the team and the CHPC, and the challenges they faced, reflect the real-life scenario currently being experienced by South Africa's National Integrated Cyberinfrastructure System (NICIS), as it works to ensure the availability of high-performance computing resources in support of the national response to COVID-19, and to address issues of connectivity to enhance online learning.


Since 2011, the ISC has focused on introducing science, technology, engineering and mathematics students to the world of possibilities that is high-performance computing, while helping to develop critical skills that students will use long after completing their studies.


Apart from competing in the competition, the students also take part in the world's oldest, and Europe's premier, conference and networking event for the international high-performance computing community.