China breaks ground on futuristic supercomputer complex

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

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

A groundbreaking 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 .

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 created to "create impressions" rather than reflect realities, he said.

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

The round roof could be used 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 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 Lab.

China has set a target of 2016 to 2020 for its first exascale system (an exaflop is thousands times faster than a petaflop). The U.S. has approved funding for initial steps in exascal funding, but has not set aside funding 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, climate models, but also military uses.

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

This slide, from an academy presentation, illustrates electromagnetic scattering, part of the science behind 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."

"[China seeks to] integrate electronic warfare, cyber operations, PSYOPS (Psychological Operations), denial and deception, and kinetic attack to defeat adversary information systems," Ulman testified. "The PLA (People's Liberation Army) seem intent on integrating electronic warfare with cyber operations."

In releasing the rendering of the supercomputing center, Chinese officials did not detail what kind of research will be conducted at the supercomputing center. But a photo of the groundbreaking on Sunday showed 11 people, and among them two people wearing what appeared to be military uniforms .

A photo from the groundbreaking ceremony for the supercomputing center shows two people, third from left and fourth from right, apparently dressed in military uniforms.

Construction is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

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 .

Read more about mainframes and supercomputers in Computerworld's Mainframes and Supercomputers Topic Center.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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