China breaks ground on futuristic supercomputer complex

China will be using its supercomputing capability for scientific research such as climate models, but also for military purposes

China has unveiled a sleek, ultramodern-appearing design for its new supercomputing center, apparently rejecting the windowless, boxy design of typical data center complexes in favor of an architectural style -- including a saucer-shaped building -- that may reflect the country's broader supercomputing ambitions.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new National Supercomputing Center was held on Sunday. The facility, to be located in Changsha, in China's central Hunan province, will house the Tianhe-1A, which was ranked last month as the world's fastest supercomputer, at 2.5 petaflops.

China's National Supercomputing Center
A rendering of China's third National Supercomputing Center. China's Xinhua News Agency published the image on Monday.

Tad Davies, executive vice president of the Bick Group, a company whose work includes data center design, looked at the rendering and said it doesn't offer much in the way of specifics. Renderings are produced to "create impressions" rather than to reflect realities, he said.

Although Davies isn't sure which of the two buildings will house the supercomputer, the elevated round building would have to be constructed to handle the data center's significant weight loads. Also, round buildings are not space-efficient.

The round roof could be used to collect water. But the underground level visible in the image "would be an ideal location" for the computer, he said. The rectangular building is set to house labs, classrooms and offices, Davies suspects.

China has launched an aggressive supercomputing development schedule, according to slides from a presentation made by an official at the Supercomputing Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences at an exascale computing conference in October.

From 2011-2015, China wants to build at least one system capable of 50 to 100 petaflops. The U.S. plans to launch at least two 20-petaflop systems in 2012, one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the other at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

China has set a target of 2016 to 2020 for its first exascale system (an exaflop is thousands of times faster than a petaflop). The U.S. has approved funding for initial steps in exascale funding but has not set aside funds for vendors to begin working with scientists on systems development.

China, like other countries, will be using its supercomputing capability for scientific research, such as sandstorm prediction and climate models, but also for military uses.

One slide that was part of the Chinese academy presentation that showed a jet plane and a military ship said that the system is being used for "stealth design of airplanes" and RCS, which may be an acronym for Radar Countermeasures System.

stealth aircraft research
This slide, from an academy presentation, illustrates electromagnetic scattering, part of the science behind the development of stealth aircraft.

China's increasing aerospace capabilities and its development of stealth aircraft was the subject of a hearing earlier this year by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, where Wayne Ulman, the China issue manager at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, said in testimony that the Chinese military "is working on a very comprehensive approach to information superiority."

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