The Next Supercomputing Superpower – Chinese Technology Comes Of Age

The most powerful supercomputer in the world uses China’s home-grown technology. Could the country also be the first to build an exascale computer?

AsianScientist (Jan. 3, 2017) – Which country has the most powerful supercomputer in the world? If you had asked that question when the first TOP500 list was published in June 1993, the answer would be the United States. Back then, CM-5 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory claimed the crown of fastest supercomputer in the world, clocking in at 60 gigaFLOPS, or 60 billion floating point operations per second. A decade later, it would be Japan’s turn to flex its supercomputing muscle, with NEC’s Earth-Simulator topping the June 2003 ranking with a speed of 36 teraFLOPS.

But ask that question today and the answer would undoubtedly be: China. Chinese supercomputers have comfortably sat on the top of the biannual list since June 2013, when Tianhe-2 achieved a Linpack benchmark speed of 34 petaFLOPS—a staggering 1,000 times faster than leading machines in the preceding decade. In fact, Tianhe-2’s number one spot would remain unchallenged for six consecutive TOP500 lists.

The accomplishments of Tianhe-2, meaning ‘Milky Way’ in Mandarin, are all the more impressive considering that China did not even appear on the TOP500 list until as recently as 2001. China’s rise since then can only be described as meteoric, with Tianhe-1 breaking into the top ten in 2009, swiftly followed by Tianhe-1A and Nebulae taking the first and third spots in 2010. China’s recent dominance on the TOP500 list has not gone unnoticed, said Jack Dongarra, a professor at the University of Tennessee and compiler of the TOP500 list since its inception.

“It’s part of an overall trend in China; they had zero systems in 2001 and today they surpass the US,” he told Supercomputing Asia. “No other nation has seen such rapid growth.

Seeing China in a whole new light

Despite the growing recognition of China’s capabilities in a field traditionally dominated by the US and Japan, Tianhe-2’s number one ranking in 2013 still came as a surprise to many industry watchers as it was only expected to be deployed two years later. Surprise gradually gave way to alarm, eventually culminating in the 2015 US government ban on the sales of Intel, NVIDIA and AMD microchips to China on fears that the technology would be used for nuclear applications.

Ever since nuclear explosive testing was outlawed in 1996, simulations run on supercomputers have become more important for nuclear research. Furthermore, supercomputers also play an increasingly significant role in national cybersecurity efforts. Although China has repeatedly insisted that its supercomputers are being used for peaceful research, the fact that the second most powerful supercomputer in the world happens to be built by the National University of Defense Technology, has not helped to allay concerns.

In any case, the lack of access to US microchips does not appear to have slowed China down. “The ban has had an insignificant impact,” said Deng Yuefan, a professor at Stony Brook University and a Mount Tai scholar at the National Supercomputer Center of China in Jinan, in an interview with Supercomputing Asia.

“I can list a few effects: Firstly, it has caused Intel to lose business in China. Secondly, it has somewhat delayed a planned upgrade of Tianhe-2. And lastly, it has hastened the development of the many-core 64-bit RISC 1.45 GHz SW26010 chips, which were designed by Shanghai’s National High Performance Integrated Circuit Design Center.”

Armed with the new Shenwei SW26010 chips, a new supercomputer has surged to the top of the TOP500 list: Sunway TaihuLight. It is nearly three times as fast as Tianhe-2, being benchmarked in Linpack as being able to perform 93 quadrillion calculations each second (93 petaFLOPS). To put this achievement in context, modern desktop PCs are already more powerful than the top ranked supercomputers from the early 1990s, and 93 petaFLOPS is roughly equivalent to the processing power of a million such PCs.

“The Sunway TaihuLight is simply a tour de force,” Dongarra added.

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Rebecca did her PhD at the National University of Singapore where she studied how macrophages integrate multiple signals from the toll-like receptor system. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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