China's Leap in Supercomputer Rankings

In merely a decade, China has become the world's third-greatest power in high-performance computing. Will it soon boast the fastest computer?

When a list of the world's 500 fastest computers is revealed on Nov. 15, it may contain a surprise. China, currently known to own the second-fastest computer, may reach the top spot. "Of the Top 10 machines today, China has two," says Jack Dongarra, director of the innovative computing laboratory at the University of Tennessee. "I know for sure they're going to have a third one in November." Dongarra has overseen the semiannual Top 500 list since it first appeared in 1993. "There's a great belief that the Chinese will be No.1," he says, adding that he has yet to see the data for next month's list.

Having the world's speediest computer carries more than bragging rights. "It means that China is taking computing seriously," says Dongarra. It's a sign that China is taking steps to spur innovation, he says.

"China gets it. These machines are useful for industry and it will help them maintain and continue on the current track of industrial growth," Dongarra says. More than half of the world's fastest computers are used by industry. Known as supercomputers, they are critical for research and simulation in areas such as climate modeling, genomics, alternative energy, and seismic imaging. Countries also use them for advanced defense. Because of the nuclear testing ban, most countries with nuclear weapons now test them virtually, on supercomputers, says Earl Joseph, an analyst at IDC. They're also used to design better tanks, submarines, aircraft, and body armor, he says.

The U.S. still dominates the Top 500. As of June, when it was last released, the U.S. accounted for more than 50 percent of the world's supercomputers, including the fastest. Yet as supercomputers become more affordable, other countries are able to narrow the U.S. lead. "Back in 2002, the Japanese became No. 1, with the Earth Simulator, and it shook things up in the U.S.," says Dongarra, who is also a professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee.

trailing the U.S. and European Union

Today, the fastest computer on the list is Jaguar, built by Seattle-based Cray (CRAY), with a theoretical peak speed of 2.33 petaflops, or more than 2 quadrillion calculations per second. Jaguar is installed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. In testing, the system clocked in at 1.759 petaflops. In June, China's Nebulae, at the National Supercomputing Centre in Shenzhen, took the No. 2 spot with a measured speed of 1.271 petaflops, although its theoretical peak speed is higher, at 2.984 petaflops. The system was built by Dawning Information Industry Co. with components from Intel (INTC) and Nvidia (NVDA).

China's rise in supercomputing power has been swift. At the beginning of the decade, it had few, if any, supercomputers. By 2002, the country had begun to invest in them. In June, China surpassed Japan in computing power. It is currently third, behind the U.S. and second-ranked European Union. "China is poised to overtake the EU countries. The real question is when they overtake the U.S.," says Dongarra.

"We call it rolling thunder," says Joseph, IDC's vice-president of high-performance computing, who recently toured various supercomputing centers in China. The Chinese aren't just producing a few computers, he says. "They're building gigantic research facilities in Shanghai and in other places, spreading them all around the country," he says. "They want to have half of the Top 10 within a year or so, as well."

Supercomputers, also known as high-performance computers, are now feasible for more countries because prices have dropped. Several years ago, a supercomputer was defined as one that cost at least several million dollars. Now it's any system over $500,000, according to IDC. Part of the trend in making them more affordable is the ability to link thousands of standard servers with special software to create one supercomputer, a technique known as clustering. In past decades, supercomputers were only built from costly proprietary technology.

"If you wanted to build a Top 5 supercomputer in the past it would be tens of millions or hundreds of millions," says Ed Turkel, manager of high-performance computing marketing at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). China and India are investing in supercomputers to develop their economies, he says.

"No. 1 or No. 2 is only one machine"

"Countries are realizing that if they want to get into the game as a worldwide innovator in science or industry, they need to get into high-performance computing to do it," Turkel says.

"There are going to be a lot of new entries on the next list." HP is working on a supercomputer for the Tokyo Institute of Technology called Tsubame 2.0. "It's slightly larger than the Jaguar at peak performance" and is made of more than 1,400 servers combined, says Turkel.

"A lot of supercomputer centers have been built in recent years" in China, says Sha Chaoqun, manager of the product division at Dawning. Sha estimates that there are at least 50 such facilities now. Dawning has centers in Chengdu and Wuxi, where the company rents infrastructure, software, and services to companies that need computing power for tasks including design, modeling, and simulations, says Sha.

Sha declined to speculate on whether a Chinese supercomputer would top the list of the world's fastest machines, saying such measures are unimportant. The most significant measure is total computing power for the nation, Sha says. "No. 1 or No. 2 is only one machine."

"China is still a developing country," Sha says. "Maybe one day, China's total computing power can be greater than that of the U.S., but there is still a long time to go before we get there."

With Edmond Lococo

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