China seeks to unseat the West in supercomputing

With China's ascension to No. 2 on Top500 list, supercomputers may be emerging as a visible symbol of battling economies.

Dawning Information Industry Co., the Chinese company that built the world's second-most-powerful computer, includes a photo on its Web site of Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit.

The photo illustrates, in a way that words can't, the attention that this government is giving to supercomputing.

China is now receiving world attention for building the second-most-powerful supercomputer on the planet, the Nebulae, a 1.27 petaflop system, according to the just-released Top500 list.

The top system is Cray's 1.76-petaflop Jaguar supercomputer at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Building a supercomputer is not just a testosterone-fueled race to take the Top500 crown. High-performance computing, which allows people to model and develop simulations, is all about creating a computing infrastructure for accelerating product development and research in every conceivable area.

Supercomputers may well be emerging as a visible symbol of battling national economies.

"There clearly seems to be a strategic and strong commitment to supercomputing at the very highest level in China," said Erich Strohmaier, who heads the Future Technology Group of the Computational Research Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and is one of the founders of the Top500.

"I would not be surprised to see this new system being followed by even larger ones and even a potential number one system within a few years," Strohmaier said by e-mail.

The Dawning system is a combination of U.S. and Chinese technologies. It includes Intel Xeon quad-core chips running at 2.66 GHz and Nvidia Tesla GPU processors. But the Chinese are also building their own processors for use in high-performance computing and may not want to rely on chip designs from U.S. firms.

The Chinese government, through the Institute of Computing Technology, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has been funding development of a family chips, Loongson and the Godson.

"The basic fact is that it's tough for a small team with little experience to overtake a juggernaut like Intel in the performance category," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight64.

"The Intel chips use a highly refined architecture, along with advanced 32nm process technology, something the Godson guys can only dream about," Brookwood said.

He also noted the Chinese use of GPU accelerators. "They're clearly ahead of the U.S. in using these hybrid CPU/GPU arrangements for high-performance computing applications," he said.

China has been showing "a remarkable increase" in installed supercomputer power over the past decade, Strohmaier said. But he noted that "getting to install a No. 2 system that quickly and easily is a bit of a surprise, as there has been no long history of systems of similar size in China or from Chinese manufacturers."

U.S. companies, building for agencies such as the Department of Energy or national laboratories, have typically dominated the top spots.

In the early 2000s, Japan's Earth Simulator was an exception, taking the No. 1 position, but "the Japanese did not follow up with the development at the same pace," said Jack Dongarra, a professor of computer science at University of Tennessee and a distinguished research staff member at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He is also a co-founder of the Top500.

"Today, modeling, simulation, and large-scale analysis with [high-performance computing] is vital to maintaining an edge in American innovation," Dongarra said. "This applies to industry and also to the education system."

The blade servers for Nebulae were made by Dawning, a server and storage product maker that focuses on the Chinese market but also lists some overseas customers, namely government agencies in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Iran and Nigeria.

The interconnect technology used on Nebulae was made by Mellanox Technologies, which is headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif., and Yokneam, Israel. This particular system used InfiniBand.

Gilad Shainer, senior director of high-performance computing at Mellanox, said that on the Top500 list there are 207 (or 208, if the mixed system is counted) with InfiniBand, a 37% gain from a year ago.

Shainer said that there's a lot of interest in China to build supercomputing capabilities "on par with the leading labs or research centers in the rest of the world."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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