Why the U.S. may lose the race to exascale

Unlike the U.S., Japan and Europe have set firm goals for systems by 2020, and China could beat everyone

DENVER -- In the global race to build the next generation of supercomputers -- exascale -- there is no guarantee the U.S. will finish first. But the stakes are high for the U.S. tech industry.

Today, U.S. firms -- Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Intel, in particular -- dominate the global high performance computing (HPC) market. On the Top 500 list, the worldwide ranking of the most powerful supercomputers, HP now has 39% of the systems, IBM, 33%, and Cray, nearly 10%.

That lopsided U.S. marketshare does not sit well with other countries, which are busy building their own chips, interconnects and new technologies in the push for exascale. Europe, China and Japan are the major challengers to the U.S., which has yet to even set an overall budget for its own efforts or even a target date.

The Europeans are now building an exascale system using ARM chips designed by British semiconductor firm Arm Holdings, and hope to deliver the system by 2020. They also hope that the exascale effort can do for the region's tech firms what Airbus accomplished for the aircraft industry. (Airbus grew out of a European government initiative and consortium of aircraft makers that successfully challenged Boeing.)

"It's not that Europe just wants an exaflop system," said Alex Ramirez, the computer architecture research manager at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center. "It wants to be able to build the exaflop system and not buy it from a provider." Ramirez is leading the effort behind the ARM-based system, and attended the annual supercomputing conference, SC13, here this week.

Europe has already committed to spending the equivalent of $1.6 billion, in contrast to U.S. funding, which has been slight and is waiting for action from Congress.

Meanwhile, China could deliver a system before 2020. Its Tianhe-2, a supercomputer developed by China's National University of Defense Technology, maintained its global top ranking in the latest Top 500 benchmark of the world's most powerful supercomputer. Tianhe-2 system runs at nearly 34 petaflops.

China is expected to produce two 100-petaflop size systems as early as 2015, one built entirely from China-made chips and interconnects.

In reaching exascale, "I think the Chinese are two years ahead of the U.S.," said Earl Joseph, an analyst at IDC who covers high performance computing.

Kimihiko Hirao, director of the RIKEN Advanced Institute for Computational Science of Japan, said in an interview that Japan is already discussing creation an exascale system by 2020, one that would use less than 30 megawatts of power.

Riken is the home of the world's fourth largest system, Fujitsu's K system, which runs at 10.5 petaflops and uses SPARC chips. Asked whether he sees the push to exascale as a race between nations, Hirao said yes. Will Japan try to win that race? "I hope so," he said.

"We are rather confident," said Hirao, arguing that Japan has the technology and the people to achieve the goal.

Jack Dongarra, a professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee and one of the academic leaders of the Top 500 supercomputing list, said Japan is serious and on target to deliver a system by 2020. Citing Japan's previous accomplishments in supercomputing, Dongarra said that "when the Japanese put down a plan to deliver a machine, they deliver the machine."

Separately, Dongarra does not believe that China has a head-start on the U.S.

"They are not ahead in terms of software, they are not ahead in terms of applications," said Dongarra. But he said China has shown a willingness to invest in HPC, "where we haven't seen that same level in the U.S. at this point."

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