Friday, June 14, 2013

China Could Supplant U.S. as the Supercomputing Superpower


Two weeks ago, Jack Dongarra flew to Changsha, China for a meeting with researchers at the National University of Defense Technology, home to the country’s top supercomputing program. He expected an update on their plans for a new mega-machine, but they had a little surprise for him: The system was already up and running. 

It’s called Tianhe-2, and with more than 3 million processor cores, it’s the world’s most powerful supercomputer. It can perform more than 30 quadrillion calculations per second, easily dwarfing the runner-up, an Oak Ridge National Laboratories machine known as Titan. The Oak Ridge system can do 17.59 quadrillion calculations per second, according to its most recent published benchmarks.

On Monday, the folks who keep track of the world’s biggest supercomputers will release the latest rankings, called the Top500 List, and the smart money is betting Tianhe-2 will be on top.

The United States, long the dominant power in supercomputing, won’t have a comparable system until around 2016, when the U.S. Department of Energy is expected to build a Tihane-2-range supercomputer called Trinity. Tihane-2 probably will beat out all U.S. systems for a few years, which is more than a loss of bragging rights for the U.S. It raises questions about whether the U.S. is investing enough in research and development to keep its supercomputing lead.

“The most important thing about this system is that it not only has a top performance, it also has a substantial investment in technology,” says Dongarra, a computer science professor with the University of Tennessee.

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