China Adds Another Supercomputer To Its Roster
November 1, 2011

China Adds Another Supercomputer To Its Roster

China surprised the United States and other world markets last year when it unveiled one of the fastest supercomputers on the planet, and shocked the industry even further when, last week, the country revealed their new powerful number-crunching machine that relies on Chinese microchips rather than standard ones used in many of the world℠s fastest supercomputers.

The Chinese Sunway BlueLight MPP supercomputer was installed in September at the National Supercomputer Center in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province in eastern China. Chinese officials made the announcement this week at a technical meeting in Jinan, organized by industry and government agencies, and covered by The New York Times.

The supercomputer can perform about 1,000 trillion calculations per second (a petaflop) and will most likely rank among the top 20 fastest computers on the planet. But what is perhaps more significant, is that it uses 8,700 ShenWei SW1600 microprocessors, designed by Chinese engineers and manufactured in Shanghai.

But while international industry watchers weren´t expecting China to use microprocessors from Intel or AMD, the ShenWei chips caught them by surprise. China had been developing another microprocessor that many believed would change the computing industry and give silicon a whole new meaning.

While their supercomputing capabilities are impressive, the Chinese are about three generations behind the state-of-the-art chip making technologies used by the United States, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

“This is a bit of a surprise,” said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee and a leader of the Top500 project, a list of the world´s fastest computers.

Last fall, another Chinese supercomputer -- Tianhe-1A -- shook the world when it was briefly ranked as the fastest supercomputer on the planet, before being ousted in the spring by Japan´s K Computer. However, Tianhe-1A was built using American processors.

Still, “It shows that there´s a significant effort underway in China to build multicore processors that can be put into the world´s fastest computers,” Dongarra told Wired magazine. “And you have to wonder what their strategy is in terms of pushing these chips outside of their borders.”

Before Sunway was revealed to the public, Dongarra was expecting the machine to operate on an eight-core chip that Chinese engineers were developing under the “Loongson” or “Godson” name. Instead, Sunway BlueLight was run on the unknown ShenWei chip.

Dongarra said the Sunway´s peak performance would be about 74 percent as fast as the fastest US computer -- Jaguar, located at the Department of Energy facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Jaguar, developed by Cray Inc., is currently the third fastest supercomputer on the Top500 project.

The Energy Dept. is planning three supercomputers that would up to 20 petaflops -- 20,000 trillion calculations per second. And the US also hopes to build a supercomputer capable of calculating an exaflop -- one million trillion -- by the end of the decade.

However, to build such a computer would require vast amounts of electricity -- roughly the amount produced by a medium-sized nuclear power plant. But the new Sunway BlueLight supercomputer only requires about one megawatt to run. The Tianhe-1A uses about 4 megawatts and the Jaguar uses seven, Dongarra said.

Dongarra said Sunway will most likely be among the top 20 fastest supercomputers when he and his crew unveil their official list next month. He said China´s microprocessing presence is gaining ground faster than expected.

“China hasn´t done much in the way of microprocessor development over the past 20 years,” said Dongarra. “But it won´t take them 20 years to catch up. It´s going to take them a very short time.”

The Japanese will likely retain their crown as having the fastest supercomputer on the planet when Dongarra´s list comes out, but Sunway is continuing to make headlines.

China also unveiled a list of its top 100 supercomputers. Eighty-five use Intel microprocessors and 14 use AMD. However, the country plans to implement Chinese microprocessors in most, if not all, of those machines in the future.

“There´s a low-end that where these chips can work. You can imagine these chips replacing all the Intel chips in the China,” Dongarra said. 


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