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U.S. says China building 'entirely indigenous' supercomputer

Petaflop-class supercomputer 'expected to be complete within the next 12 to 18 months,' DOE says

November 4, 2010 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- China may be no more than a year away from developing a supercomputer built entirely from its own technology, a big step toward freeing itself of Western technology.

This is the view of some research and industry experts in the U.S., but most notably Steven Koonin, the undersecretary for science at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), who says China is now working on a petaflop-class supercomputer "using entirely indigenous components that is expected to be complete within the next 12 to 18 months."

"It is clear that DOE will not be the only organization working to push the limits of computer performance," wrote Koonin, in a post published on the DOE's Energy Blog Friday.

Explaining how the 12-to-18 month estimate was made, an adviser in Koonin's office told Computerworld that it was a collective assessment based on data coming from China and Chinese researchers and visits to China by several people.

Koonin isn't the only person to think such a time frame is possible. Jack Dongarra, a professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee and a distinguished research staff member at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, made a similar prediction and cited China's work on microprocessors, which include chips based on MIPS architecture, and the Loongson, or Godson, processor.

China's supercomputing goals are becoming plain. Last month, the country announced that its Tianhe-1A supercomputer had achieved 2.5 petaflops in a standard benchmark test, making it the world's most powerful supercomputer.

This standing is expected to become official when the Top500 supercomputing list is released in the middle of this month. (A petaflop is one thousand trillion sustained floating-point operations per second.)

Today, U.S. chip makers, in particular Intel, dominate supercomputing, and even the Tianhe-1A relies Intel Xenon processors and Nvidia Tesla GPUs. Intel chips are used in 406 of the top 500 systems, followed by AMD at 49 and IBM Power at 42, according to Top500 list data.

However, China's Tianhe-1A shows how the country is gradually making its break from Western technology. Along with the Intel and Nvidia chip, this system includes a third chip, the FeiTeng-1000, an eight-core, Chinese-produced, Sparc-based processor that is used to operate service nodes, such as log-ins.

China's latest supercomputer includes its own proprietary interconnect that is faster than InfiniBand but not as fast as the proprietary interconnects from U.S. companies, said Steve Conway, a high-performance computing analyst at IDC. "[But] the most impressive thing about this is they developed most of the software themselves," Conway said.

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