June 1, 2010

China Vies For Top Spot On Supercomputer List

China is ramping up its efforts to become the world's supercomputing superpower.

Its Nebulae machine at the National Super Computer Center in Shenzhen was ranked second on the biannual top 500-supercomputer list.

A second Chinese supercomputer appears on the list of the top ten fastest machines.

However, the U.S. still dominates the list with over half the Top 500, including the world's fastest supercomputer known as the Jaguar.

The Cray computer, which Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee owns, has a top speed of 1.75 petaflops.

One petaflop is the equivalent of 1,000 trillion calculations per second.

Scientists used it to conduct research in astrophysics, climate science and nuclear energy.

China has 24 machines on the list by comparison.  Its fastest computer has a top speed of 1.20 petaflops, which is over double the speed of its previous top supercomputer.  However, the supercomputer has a theoretical top speed of about 3 petaflops per second, which would make it the fastest in the world.

The fastest machine in the U.K. is housed at the University of Edinburgh and has a top speed of 0.27 petaflops.

"The Top 500 list definitely has an element of flag waving," Dr Jon Lockley, manager of the Oxford Supercomputing Centre told BBC News.

Lockley said China was quickly becoming a "player" in high performance computing.

Dawning is reportedly building an even faster machine for the National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin.  It is also developing home-grown silicon chips to power the behemoths.

"Their use of high-performance computers is really systematic of their industrial emergence," Lockley told BBC News.

The machines are generally used for industrial research, such as aircraft design and petroleum exploration.

Lockley told BBC that this was becoming increasingly common around the world.

"Whenever possible, everything is done in a supercomputer," he said.

"Look at Formula One - it's getting rid of all of its wind tunnels and replacing them with supercomputers. It's the same in the aerospace industry as well."

"It means you can all the modeling in the supercomputer and then do just one real world test."

Many of the machines in the U.S. are owned by the government and are used to monitor the nuclear weapon stockpile.

The U.S. has one other petaflop machine which is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy.  Roadrunner, as it is known, held the top spot until Jaguar displaced it in 2009.

All other machines on the list are at teraflop speeds, which is the equivalent of one trillion calculations per second.

An exascale computer has been proposed to process data from the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which is a series of thousands of telescopes spread over 1,800 miles.  The telescope will be based in either Australia or South Africa.

"At that sort of size the challenge is trying to program the machines," Lockley told BBC.

"It has to be fault tolerant - you can't have a situation where an entire task falls over if one bit fails."

The top 500 list was published at the International Supercomputing Conference in Hamburg, Germany.  This list ranks machines according to speed.

However, according to Lockley, determining which machine is the quickest is a difficult issue.

"It's measured against a theoretical benchmark - if you ran a real-world application you might get a very different answer".

It is also a voluntary list and does not include all machines, such as those at the Oxford Supercomputing Center and many classified machines owned by governments.

"The spooks have got some pretty big machines," Lockley told BBC.


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