China’s Tianhe-1A takes supercomputer crown from US

China has overtaken the US as home of the world’s fastest supercomputer. Tianhe-1A, named for the Milky Way, is capable of sustained computing of 2,507 petaflops – equivalent to 2 507 trillion calculations – each second.

The US scientist who maintains the international rankings visited it last week and said he believed it was 1,4 times faster than the former number one, the Cray XT5 Jaguar in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That topped the list in June with a rate of 1,75 petaflops a second.

The US is home to more than half of the world’s top 500 supercomputers. China had 24 in the last list, but has pumped billions of dollars into developing its computational ability in recent years. The machines are used for everything from modelling climate change and studying the beginnings of the universe to assisting aeroplane design.

Housed in the northern port city of Tianjin, near Beijing, Tianhe-1A was developed by the National University of Defence Technology. The system was built from thousands of chips made by US firms — Intel and Nvidia — but domestic researchers developed the networking technology that allows information to be exchanged between servers at extraordinary speeds.

Tianjin’s weather bureau and the National Offshore Oil Corporation data centre are already using it for trial projects. “It can also serve the animation industry and bio-medical research,” Liu Guangming, director of the National Centre for Supercomputing, told the China Daily.

Tianhe-1A was in seventh place in the last rankings. Its domestic rival Nebulae, housed in Shenzhen, was at that time ranked second, capable of sustained computing of 1 271 petaflops a second.

The next set of rankings is due next week, but Jack Dongarra, the University of Tennessee computer scientist who oversees them, told the New York Times that Tianhe-1 “blows away the existing number one”.

Wu-chun Feng, a supercomputing expert and professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, told the NYT: “What is scary about this is that the US dominance in high-performance computing is at risk. One could argue that this hits the foundation of our economic future.”

Professor Arthur Trew, of Edinburgh University, who oversees the UK’s HECToR supercomputer, said the Sino-American battle to have the fastest device was not particularly significant. “They are showing off with big machines — fine. It’s the underlying message that is important. The fact they are pumping this kind of money into building these machines in general is far more important … Europe is being left behind,” he said.

“Having the computer is only half the battle. You have to use it, use it sensibly, and actually produce results. That requires software and brains and a lot of investment on top of the machine.”

Trew added: “The number of software engineers that China is turning out and putting into centres dwarfs anything we are doing in the west. I remember going to Shanghai and being astounded by the number of people they had — hundreds. Edinburgh is one of the largest centres in Europe and we have got 100.”

Essentially, supercomputers allow research that could not otherwise be done because it involves calculations too complex to solve by other means or where an experiment cannot be carried out.

“Where you have complexity and cannot experiment — because a system is too large or small, or [the effect] happens too quickly or slowly, or it is just too expensive — you have to simulate it … The range of applications is growing and growing,” said Trew.

The NYT calculated that Tianhe-1 could perform mathematical operations about 29-million times faster than one of the earliest supercomputers, built in 1976. Scientists in the US are already contemplating exascale computing — aiming to develop devices capable of performing a million trillion calculations a second. –

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