China Unveils the Fastest Supercomputer in the World. Should We Panic?

By Andrew Moseman | October 29, 2010 11:50 am

ChinaSupercomputerThis week China unveiled a new supercomputer that’s pretty darn quick.

The Tianhe-1A machine housed at the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin reportedly works at the rate of 2.5 petaflops (a petaflop being about a thousand trillion operations per second), and reportedly will take the top spot in the rankings of world supercomputers when the people who attend to this list release the new version next month. That will bump the top U.S. machine down to number 2.

Personally, I’m not going to panic until China leapfrogs the United States on the Princeton Review list of top party countries or People Magazine’s sexiest countries in the world. But the announcement brought talk of American unease about being bested by China, and American alarm over China’s growing technological expertise. So is the vague, festering worry about the Chinese supercomputer justified? Let’s look at both sides of the argument.


Putting aside the issue of our wounded national pride, some experts say the real concern is whether the United States has the organization to match what China has done. CNET interviewed Jack Dongarra of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, keeper of the former fastest supercomputer, who called China’s achievement a “wake-up call.”

You have to remember that you have to not only invest in the hardware. It’s like a race car. In order to run the race car, you need a driver. You need to effectively use the machine. And we need to invest in various levels within the supercomputer ecology. The ecology is made up of the hardware, the operating system, the compiler, the applications, the numerical libraries, and so on. And you have to maintain an investment across that whole software stack in order to effectively use the hardware. And that’s an aspect that sometimes we forget about. It’s underfunded. [CNET]

Simply, the United States’ supercomputer hegemony may not be possible to maintain.

“What is scary about this is that the U.S. dominance in high-performance computing is at risk,” said Wu-chun Feng, a supercomputing expert and professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “One could argue that this hits the foundation of our economic future.” [The New York Times]


Tianhe-1A may be of Chinese design, but it is not completely of Chinese origin.

Most of the Tianjin system relies on chips from Intel and Nvidia, which are both based in Santa Clara, Calif. So U.S. customers could presumably construct a system with similar performance, noted Horst Simon, deputy lab director at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. [Wall Street Journal]

And while Feng may be right that this story touches a nerve wired to our economic future, the focus on a particular machine may be misguided. As Boston University computer science professor Azer Bestavros tells Forbes:

“It may be a matter of national pride (and, as a result, an effective mechanism that some may use to siphon funding from Congress to subsidize HPC research), but the much more important question is whether we are investing in the education and training of the next generation of computer scientists who will use the power from such machines. Meantime, the emphasis on the performance of a single machine is a bit misleading.  Today, we are increasingly moving towards more distributed forms of computing, including the use of grid and cloud computing infrastructures.” [Forbes]

It’s not the end of the world, but don’t tell the government

Champions lose their crowns. Challengers come along, take the title, and the former champ joins the ranks of the challengers plotting to retake the top spot.

So the jingoistic hand-wringing may not be totally justified, but it is useful. Just look at what happened the last time the United States lost the title.

In 2002, the United States lost its crown as supercomputing kingpin for the first time in stunning fashion when Japan unveiled a machine with more horsepower than the top 20 American computers combined. The United States government responded in kind, forming groups to plot a comeback and pouring money into supercomputing projects. The United States regained its leadership status in 2004, and has kept it, until now. [The New York Times]

As Bestavros says, being surpassed by China may well elicit a similar response, with Congress loosening the purse strings for computing research to try to beat back the competition. Good.

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Image: Nvidia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
  • Darius

    That’s Americans for you. Tell them someone built a better computer and they gotta have an even better one at the cost of billions of dollars. Tell them that their health care system is crumbling and there are countries with far better healthcare… and they don’t care. Go figure.

  • Brian Too

    Building advanced supercomputers is actually not that difficult these days. There is a recipe for how to build them and everyone knows it. Just like computers themselves, supercomputers are something of a commodity. The days of specialty computing companies, specialty processors, specialty hardware and even specialty software(*), is over.

    For instance, everyone knows and says that computers are better every year. Now step back and take a big picture look. Yes, many of the details have changed, and the components are individually much better than years past. However the list of components at a high level, has not changed in 25 years. Maybe more!

    The best description of high end stereos I ever heard applies 100% to computers too, including supercomputers. When you get the best there’s an unease. You know that someone is going to come out with a better one and then you won’t have bragging rights for being the best.

    The downside is that it is extremely difficult to maintain leadership at all times. The upside is that you can always regain the title, even if it is for relatively short (or even long) intervals.

    (*) OK, this is a bit premature, but it is coming. All modern supercomputers are massively parallel architectures. This is slowly coming true even for ordinary PC’s and the industry forecasts commodity PC CPU’s containing hundreds of cores in the intermediate future. Therefore even humble PC software is going to adopt supercomputer software practices. In the process there is a very reasonable liklihood that PC software will eventually influence supercomputer software as well (bigger developer base, more money, more software, all equals a more dynamic software marketplace).

  • thomas

    from what my math teacher tells me the time it takes your brain to register your finger on a hot stove and remove that finger because its HOT!!!! is faster than any supercomputer could ever hope to be! so we all have a supercomputer faster than chinas!!

  • thinker

    People are missing an important fact – slapping together a million CPUs / GPUs does not make a supercomputer, just a power hungry cluster good only for easily parallel or unrelated tasks (capacity computing). It is the interconnect that makes that a “supercomputer” – and the Chinese have a custom interconnect that’s made the difference to their LINPACK Rmax numbers.

  • kirk

    yo Thomas… your brain is not directly involved in the local decision of the finger/hand/arm/shoulder response to a hot surface. And this is a fairly slow distributed computing anyway. Your iPhone is faster than your finger/hand/arm response to pain. You should ask your biology teacher about biology and leave Laplace transforms for the math instructor.

  • http://none Eric

    China better get started on the successor because America is right on their tail.

    The IBM Blue Gene/Q (aka Sequoia) has a maximum throughput of 20 PetaFLOPS and
    it will come online at the NNSA in 2012!

    – the fastest supercomputer ever built(faster than the Top500 combined)
    – latest technologies including optical fiber interconnects and switches
    – unprecedented efficiency capable of performing at 3000 MFLOPS/Watt
    – capable of running a wider variety of applications because it is not limited by GPUs like the Tianhe-1A

    Lets see China beat that. It is things like these that make me proud of America as much as I despise nationalism.

  • Alex

    @ Darius-
    Yes thank you!

    And C’mon 80 Beats, “Should We Panic?” is the biggest sensationalist headline I’ve seen on this site…Even your argument for “no” is based on the fact that “it is not completely of Chinese origin.”

    How about no, because its not even an issue. Why do we have to be #1 in everything? We should be panicking because we have one of the highest poverty rates in the industrialized world. Or because our citizens don’t have humane healthcare. Or because we’re fighting three unnecessary wars.

  • Hanusz Kowalik

    China has assembled the fastest computer but has not manufactured all components.
    The greatest peoblem that USA faces is making engineering and computer science professions attractive for young people.Only American talented young people will secure the American leadership in computing and related technologies. Having the fastest machine is not enough. We need strong
    science programs at schools , attractive related career opportunities and general public admiration for sciences and technological progress.

  • fatkid

    IBM made a nifty computer for the Germans in World War II, at the time it was a state of the art counting machine.. Cray took a hiatus between his great projects for US, I hope it took that long in the shower for him to feel clean about their applications. China? Sure, that abacus won’t be counting roses, especially since we mowed the trail for them to follow.

  • David Hasselhof

    Excellent work over again! Thanks a lot=)


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