China has the fastest supercomputer, but the U.S. still rules

Despite increasing global competition in supercomputing, 90% of the top 500 systems are made by U.S. vendors

More powerful supercomputers enable higher resolutions for modeling and simulations, support more complex science and improve the possibility of researchers making breakthrough discoveries. Those are some of the reasons why the biannual Top500 list of supercomputers is carefully watched. Computing power matters in this universe.

China continues to lead the benchmark list of the 500 most powerful computers: Last week, the country's Tianhe-2 supercomputer was cited as the world's No. 1 system. Capable of speeds of up to 33.86 petaflops (33.86 quadrillion calculations per second), it has held that distinction for a year.

The Tianhe-2 was built by China's National University of Defense in collaboration with the Chinese IT company Inspur. The supercomputer uses Intel processors, but China has created its own chips and has started building large systems with entirely homegrown products.

China is getting a lot of attention, and rightfully so, for its supercomputing efforts, but the U.S. remains the leader in producing supercomputers.

About 90% of all the systems on the Top500 list are made by U.S. vendors, including 65 of the 76 Chinese supercomputers that were included in the most recent list, according to Steve Conway, an analyst at IDC, citing data from the list.

Indeed, Hewlett-Packard accounted for 182 systems on this list, or more than 36%, followed by IBM with 176, or 35%. Cray is responsible for 50 or 10% of the global total, followed by SGI at 19, and Dell at eight.

In all, those U.S. vendors account for 435 of the 500 systems. A few one-off systems by small vendors add several more to this total.

Global competition is increasing, however, and the manufacturing lead now held by the U.S. is not assured. Japan and Europe, as a well as China, are all stepping up high-performance computing (HPC) investments to challenge, in part, U.S. dominance in broader technology markets.

The impact of the push by other countries is evident in the latest Top500 list: For the first time, fewer than 50% of the most powerful systems are located in the U.S. -- just 233 of the systems are U.S.-based. Conway observed that China has "captured places on the list that otherwise would have gone to the U.S. or other countries."

Earl Joseph, an analyst at IDC, said that "the U.S. has lost ground mostly due to other nations investing more, not as much from a reduction in U.S. spending as much as a lack of growth."

Jack Dongarra, a professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee and one of the academic leaders of the Top500 initiative, also sees a decline in systems share by the U.S. that reflects China's "aggressively investing in HPC."

"Remember, in 2001 China had zero systems on the Top500," Dongarra said.

This article, "China Has the Fastest Supercomputer, but the U.S. Still Rules," was originally published on

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing 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 email address is

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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