China moves to beat U.S. in exascale computing

It's now on a path to delivering an entirely indigenous supercomputer

U.S. efforts to develop the next-generation high performance computing (HPC) platform are lagging because they don't have government funding. In China, it's a much different story.

China has impressed analysts with its rocket-speed commitment to HPC. It had 72 systems in this month's Top 500 supercomputer list, making it the No. 2 HPC user in the world. Five years ago, it had just 10 systems in the Top 500 list.

Along the way to achieving its HPC goals, China built what was for a time the world's most powerful supercomputer, the Tianhe-1A.

The U.S. remains far and away the leader in the field for now, with 250 HPC systems on the Top 500 list. U.S.-based tech firms build most of the world's systems.

But U.S. dominance today is no guarantee of future success. Last week at SC12, the annual supercomputing conference, a panel of HPC researchers from China was asked about that nation's exascale plans.

Depei Qian, a professor at Beihang University and director of the Sino-German Joint Software Institute, said that China has historically been five years or more behind the U.S. Although China has tried to close the gap in recent years, Qian said: "Still, I guess three to five years will be the reality" of the gap between the two nations' efforts.

Earl Joseph, an HPC analyst at IDC, had a different take. "The Chinese are being very polite -- their goal is to build it (an exascale system) first," he said.

Part of China's effort includes building an indigenous tech industry. "What I think is interesting is the dedication (in China) to creating a home-grown economy for computing," said Pete Beckman, director of the Exascale Technology and Computing Institute at Argonne National Laboratory.

Beckman points to the way China is building large systems.

For its Tianhe-1A system, China turned to U.S. chips -- Intel's Xeon processors -- but used a China-developed interconnect. With its Sunway BlueLight supercomputer, China used its own chip, the Shen Wie SW 1600 microprocessor, but with InfiniBand interconnects.

"You can see what they're doing," said Beckman, explaining that China's developers reduce risk by mixing and matching standard technologies with homegrown approaches.

"Now, you can see what's going to happen," said Beckman. "You take your homegrown CPU, the homegrown network, and you put them together and you have a machine that from soup to nuts is a technical achievement for China and is really competitive."

The quest to build an exascale system that's 1,000 times more powerful than the petaflop systems being deployed today may be the biggest challenge yet in HPC. It requires new programming models and methods to manage data and memory, along with improved system resiliency.

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