The history of AWS and the Winter Classic has been, in a word, tumultuous.

Their initial run in 2022 was a simple task of optimizing a basic OpenFOAM simulation on different processors to achieve the lowest wall clock time to solution. The only requirement was to keep the same airflow coefficient. One team, Prairie View A &M, thought outside the box and tried coarsening the mesh and achieved spectacular results. They scored a perfect 100 points vs. the next highest competitor who only scored 6 points, which vaulted them from a weak fifth place to a tight second place and eventually gave them the 2022 championship.

In 2023, AWS came back with their GROMACS Challenge, won by Team Santa Cruz, which put them in a virtual tie with the Channel Islands High Performance Dolphins heading into the interview. The Dolphins prevailed by only 4.29  points for the championship – that’s only a 0.65% margin!

The AWS competition week in 2024 was equally dramatic, but for different reasons. The results did radically change the leaderboard – five out of the 11 teams had their positions changed. But first, let’s talk about the student task, the AWS RELION Challenge.

In the interview, Evan Bollig and Brian Skjerven talk about why they selected RELION, which is used for electron cryomicroscopy (getting stuff really cold and then looking at it close up). The interesting thing about this app, which they discuss in the interview below, is that the AWS teams often have customers come to them with a need to run cryomicroscopy workloads, but not knowing how to do it. So, with the RELION Challenge, students are attempting to do something that stumps real-world customer teams. Very cool.


The goal for AWS in every competition is to present as much of a real life HPC situation as possible for the students – and that was definitely the case this year. We had a system availability interruption in the middle of the week that threw a wrench into the works.

It wasn’t a problem with the systems themselves, it was because of the highly unusual usage pattern of the Winter Classic AWS account. For 51 weeks of the year, the Winter Classic account is at zero utilization and then, for one week, it gets slammed by users from 50+ different IP addresses. This raised automated fraud detection alarms and understandably cut off account access. It was fixed with some phone calls and account adjustments and the students received extra time to complete the task.

Check out the AWS interview, it’s a very thoughtful explanation of what they’re trying to do with mentoring the students and how they’re accomplishing it – and having fun doing it.

(The photo is an image of a tick larvae as seen by Dartmouth’s electron microscope, thank you Dartmouth, that’s really frightening.)

After you watch the video, hit our social media and give us huge amounts of praise, and send our links to everyone on your contacts list, make sure you stay tuned for more Winter Classic competition action.