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Coding for fame, and dollars

Programmers are set to compete for $150,000 in prize money Wednesday at a Las Vegas coding competition.

Las Vegas has seen its share of title fights, but the only thing that will get pounded by the 64 finalists arriving this week for the 2006 TopCoder Open will be a computer keyboard.

With $150,000 in prize money up for grabs, the competitive coding contest draws some of the most talented developers in the world. The finals of the 2006 TopCoder Open start Wednesday at the Aladdin Hotel. Thousands of developers have been competing online for months in hopes of reaching the finals, where they will face off in two separate events.

The finalists include Michal Forisek, a top-rated competitor and native of Slovakia who goes by the coding handle "Misof." Also in the competition are international coding stars Natori Shin of Japan (better known as "Natori"), whose dream according to his biography is to buy Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Apple Computer and Adobe Systems and open source their products; and "Visualage," otherwise known as Qi Liu of China, who traces his programming roots to that pesky little turtle from Logo.

TopCoder, which bills itself as "the major leagues for programming competitions," is receiving help this year from primary sponsor Advanced Micro Devices in order to help promote so-called multicore development strategies.

Intel has also gotten into the act as part of TopCoder's monthly competitions, where developers compete to solve problems that emphasize programming techniques for systems that use chips with multiple processing cores, or processors with multiple threads.

"It's not only fun to figure out how to thread something, but there's a huge educational aspect," said George Tsipolitis, vice president of TopCoder Employment Services. Tsipolitis is responsible for the other side of TopCoder, which takes the code submitted during those competitions and resells it to clients ranging from Philip Morris to ESPN.

TopCoder, of course, is best known for its competitions. While companies like AMD and Intel like to promote their products in front of developers at competitive events, they are also concerned about the need for greater education on multithreading programming techniques. Now that chip companies have decided that multicore processors are the way to go, they need to encourage software developers to change their habits and write code with more than one core in mind.

It's certainly a change. PC software has always taken advantage of the faster and faster chip clock rates delivered by Intel and AMD. Programs were written in serial, with one task following another, so as a chip got faster, performance increased without having to tweak the code.

However, that "free lunch," as one Microsoft developer put it last year, has come to a halt with the release of multicore processors. The heat given off by fast single-core processors is simply too much for system builders to deal with anymore, so Intel and AMD are releasing chips with two processing cores that sometimes run at slower clock speeds than their single-core counterparts.

That means that software written in a single-threaded fashion will actually run a little bit slower on a new dual-core chip that has a slower clock speed than a single-core chip, said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research.

"If you want your application to continue to scale in performance with the PCs that are being sold, your application needs to incorporate more parallelism," he said. That means software needs to be written with independent threads, or streams of instructions, running side by side rather than in sequence.

This requires a new way of thinking about software development, at least in the PC world, said Richard Finlayson, director of the software strategy and alliances group at AMD. Although applications for multiprocessor servers and workstations have been designed with parallelism in mind for years, "we're right at the beginning with desktop applications," he said.

More needs to be done in computer science departments to emphasize multithreading strategies early on in the educational process, said James Reinders, director of marketing and business development for Intel's software developer products. "We've become convinced that this should be a fundamental way people think about things like this; it should be introduced as early as the first class," Reinders said.

Multithreading will be the topic for one of the semifinal competitions at the 2006 TopCoder Open, Finlayson said. The contestants are broken up into separate categories, such as the algorithm category, component design and component development. Separate winners will be chosen in each area, but competitors can participate in more than one category to increase their winnings.

The TopCoder Open is just one event in a calendar full of competitions run by TopCoder. Monthly online competitions allow participants to submit code-solving problems posed by the TopCoder staff and tweak that code several times over the course of the competition to obtain the best result.

Intel is pushing multithreading development in the monthly competitions, in which it submits its own problems for developers that have been vetted by the chipmaker's staff, said Scott Hay, manager of Intel's software networks.

TopCoder has about 80,000 registered developers on its site, who are rated and ranked based on speed, accuracy and other metrics. More than 35,000 of those developers are from the U.S., while 12,720 are from India and 4,462 are from China. However, in terms of the average rating earned by those developers, the Russian Federation's developers rank on top, followed closely by the developers from Poland and China. The Indian developers have the lowest average rating per developer, while the U.S. developers are second to last.

Ninety-eight percent of TopCoder's developers are male. Slightly more than half are students, with the average age falling between 18 and 23.

But just who wins the competition--a top-ranked, international programming star or a dark horse--is still anyone's guess.

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