Japan supercomputer K beats rivals

After the indignity of seeing its economy overtaken by China’s earlier this year, Japan has clawed back a little pride, beating its east Asian rival to produce the world’s most powerful computer for the first time in seven years.

The machine, nicknamed K — a play on the Japanese word kei, meaning 10-quadrillion, the number of operations per second it is designed to perform when it is completed next year — crushed the opposition when the latest rankings were announced at the International Supercomputing conference at Hamburg.

It harnesses more power than the next five supercomputers combined, and is much faster than its closest rival, designed by China’s National University of Defence Technology. About one million desktop computers would have to be linked up to replicate its performance.

The K, a collaborative effort involving Fujitsu and Riken, a government-funded research institute, boasts a current speed of 8.16 petaflops — or 8.16-quadrillion operations a second — making it three times faster than China’s most powerful machine, the Tianhe-1A, which had topped the rankings since last November.

Development of the K was slowed by the natural disaster that struck Japan’s north-east coast in March; appropriately enough, when fully functional the supercomputer will be put to use predicting the possible impact of earthquakes and tsunamis.

It will also have economic uses in the fields of drugs, new technology and renewable energy, and could be used to improve our understanding of climate change.

“We must realise that science and technology is an area in which Japan can show its strength,” Riken’s president, Ryoji Noyori, told reporters.

While Japan’s resurgence should have scientists dancing in laboratory corridors, not everyone is convinced that resources should be poured into fueling the country’s supercomputer rivalry with the US and, increasingly, China.

‘What’s wrong with being number two?’
Funding for the project, estimated at ¥112-billion yen, was almost cut in 2009 when a government panel questioned the investment required in the midst of an economic crisis. Renho, now the government minister in charge of cutting wasteful spending, infuriated scientists when she asked: “What’s wrong with being number two?”

Its future was secured after a group of Nobel prize winners convinced the prime minister at the time, Yukio Hatoyama, that Japan should not settle for second best.

Asked to comment on this week’s success, Renho said: “That’s good news. I want to salute the people involved.”

The K computer, with more than 68 544 processors, occupies 672 cabinets at Riken’s Advanced Institute for Computational Science in the western port city of Kobe. It uses at 9.9 megawatts of power, running up an electricity bill of about $10-million a year — that’s enough electricity to power about 10 000 homes a year.

It is more than 200 times faster than the Earth Simulator, a joint project involving NEC and the Japan Agency for Marine-earth Science and Technology, the last Japanese supercomputer to top the global league table, in 2004.

Japan’s celebrations may not last for long, however. The US technology firm IBM is working on a system at Illinois University that will be able to process more than 10-quadrillion calculations per second. – guardian.co.uk

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