China gains may spur U.S. supercomputer development

End of six-year U.S. run atop Top500 supercomputer list could persuade a cost conscious Congress to fund new projects

U.S. dominance of supercomputer development is being heavily challenged for the first time in years, with Chinese-built systems ranked first and third in the latest Top500 list of the most powerful systems.

Analysts say the timing of the U.S.'s fall from the top of the biannual list after a six-year run could prove beneficial to various federal agencies looking for public monies to fund supercomputer projects in the midst of a cost-cutting climate in Washington.

"When it's all over the popular press that three of the top four supercomputers in the world are in Asia, there is no way there is not a response in Congress," said Addison Snell, CEO of InterSect360 Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based high-performance computing research group.

The latest Top500 list, released last week, is led by the 2.5-petaflop Tianhe-1A supercomputer built at China's Tianjin National Supercomputer Center. Next is the Oak Ridge, Tenn., Leadership Computing Facility's Cray XT5 Jaguar system, which clocked in at 1.75 petaflops, followed by systems built in China and Japan.

On the plus side for the U.S., 275 of the 500 top systems were built here, compared with 42 in China.

The Top500 list is compiled by researchers at the University of Mannheim, Germany; the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Experts wouldn't speculate on how the new Congress will react to China's growing supercomputer prowess, though some noted that economic arguments alone should convince lawmakers to fund new projects.

"Governments are recognizing that the deployment of this technology is a prerequisite to sustaining economic competitiveness," said David Turek, vice president of deep computing at IBM. "It lets you do better product designs, basic research, life sciences, fundamental research in materials."

IDC analyst Earl Joseph noted that the Chinese government is building 14 petascale computing centers "because they recognize the competitive value." Even Russia realizes that the goods it creates won't be as competitive without high-performance computing, he added, citing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's scalding criticism last year of its lagging supercomputer development.

The U.S. isn't standing still either. In 2012, the DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory plans to unveil an IBM Sequoia system that will exceed 20 petaflops, and its Argonne National Lab is expected to finish its next-generation IBM Blue Gene supercomputer, which will perform at up to 10 petaflops.

Jackson is a reporter for the IDG News Service.

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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