China likely to become No. 1 in supercomputing this week

With 3.1 million cores and the ability to run at speeds of 55 petaflops, the Tianhe-2 is expected to take first place on the Top500 list this week.

China has produced a supercomputer capable of running at 54.9 petaflops that will likely be recognized as the world's fastest system in the forthcoming Top500 list of the world's most powerful computers.

The new system -- called Tianhe-2, or Milkyway-2 -- has 3.1 million cores, 32,000 multicore Intel Xeon Ivy Bridge chips and 48,000 Xeon Phi co-processors, along with technologies produced in China.

The 24-megawatt system, which cost about $290 million, runs more than twice as fast as any supercomputer in the U.S.

The current Top500 leader is an 18-petaflop Cray supercomputer at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The Top500 list is updated twice a year, with the newest version set to be released at this week's International Supercomputing Conference in Leipzig, Germany, where the Chinese system is expected to be unveiled.

Jack Dongarra, a professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee and an academic overseer of the Top500 supercomputing list, posted a detailed description of the new Chinese system early this month. The description is based on information he obtained in a briefing he had with a Chinese official from the National University of Defense Technology at a high-performance computing conference in Changsha.

Dongarra's report suggests that China may have the top system for a couple of years. "The next large acquisition of a supercomputer for the U.S. Department of Energy will not be until 2015," he wrote.

The Tianhe-2 "is a clear statement of how serious [China is] with respect to scientific computing," said Peter Beckman, a top computer scientist at the DOE's Argonne National Laboratory and head of the U.S. exascale computing initiative. "If you look at their history of investment, this is just one data point in a much longer series of investments."

The new system is the successor to the Tianhe-1A, which had been recognized as the world's fastest supercomputer in November 2010. President Barack Obama made note of that accomplishment in his 2011 State of the Union speech and then argued that the U.S. faces another "Sputnik moment" because it is at risk of being surpassed by China and other countries in the realm of technological research.

China has been developing its own chip technology and has been mixing and matching homegrown tech with imported components. U.S. researchers believe China is heading in the direction of building a supercomputer made entirely of domestically produced components, including chips.

"There are number of features of the Tianhe-2 that are Chinese in origin, unique and interesting," Dongarra said in his report. He cited proprietary interconnects and the Galaxy FT-15, a 16-core processor.

"I suspect that there is a national pride issue," Beckman said. "They will really work, in my opinion, to make a top machine that will be [homegrown] tech from top to bottom."

With its strong tech push, China is raising the stakes for the U.S. -- and for Japan and Europe. It's showing a willingness to vie for leadership in the race to develop exascale systems, which would be capable of running at 1,000 petaflops or more. A petaflop is 1,000 teraflops, or 1 quadrillion floating-point operations per second.

China wants to produce an exascale system before 2020. The U.S. at its current pace won't hit that milestone until around 2025, researchers told U.S. lawmakers last month.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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