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July 17, 2014

China’s Supercomputing Strategy Called Out

Tiffany Trader
Tianhe-2 image

Since China’s Tianhe-2 supercomputer has successfully held on to its number one position for three iterations of the TOP500 list, there has been a lot of attention focused on just how useful this nearly 34-petaflops (LINPACK) beast actually is. In fact for many years the consensus on supercomputing in China has centered on a dearth of application software expertise.

This week, several Chinese news sites came out with essentially the same critique: China is spending too much money on hardware, but isn’t investing enough in software. Operating cost is another issue. The electricity bill for Tianhe-2 runs between 400,000 yuan and 600,000 yuan ($65,000-$100,000) a day.

Tianhe-2 was built by the National University of Defence Technology at a cost of 2.4 billion yuan ($390 million). It began trial operations in April and has so far served 120 clients at 34 percent of its capacity, supporting such projects as railway design, astrophysics and genetics, according to a piece in the South China Morning Post. Because of a lack of software support from the project’s backers, however, users have been forced to write the programs themselves, making the expensive machine less useful than it could be.

“It is at the world’s frontier in terms of calculation capacity, but the function of the supercomputer is still way behind the ones in the US and Japan,” remarked Chi Xuebin, deputy director of the Computer Network and Information Centre under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “It’s like a giant with a super body but without the software to support its thinking soul.”

In a rebuttal to these claims, the chief designer of the supercomputer, Lu Yutong from National University of Defense Technology in Changsha, has joined the debate. Lu took issue with assertions that the system was only “theoretically powerful,” noting that the LINPACK benchmark measures actual performance. She also pushed back on claims that Tianhe-2 was gobbling up too much energy, referring to TOP500 metrics that showed the Tianhe-2 as being nearly equal with the consumption of the US Titan and Sequoia machines. Lu added that Tianhe-2 uses far less energy than Japan’s K computer.

As for one of the most sticky critiques of China’s computing strategy, which is that it emphasizes performance numbers over practical applications, Lu responded that Tianhe-2 has contributed to the fields of energy, meteorology, aviation and astronautics, biomedicine and industrial manufacturing. She also said that the machine supports a wide array of users, including enterprise, academia and government researchers. As a further data point, Lu added that SeisSol, the seismic simulation software running on Tianhe-2, was nominated for the Bernard M Gordon Bell Prize.

Lu conceded ground on one point, however – software development – acknowledging that “China is still behind in software, as high-efficiency software development depends on the overall scientific and technological level of the nation.”

Another critique from MarketWatch’s Laura He goes even further, questioning not just China’s software prowess, but taking aim at the troublingly low utilization rates of its most expensive number-crunchers. The author cites a report from the NewEase Chinese new portal that claims less than 20 percent of China’s supercomputers have been used for scientific research.

“It seems a lot of these massive machines, usually made with large government investment, lie idle after they are made, or are even abandoned midway, due to fundamental defects in China’s traditional bureaucratic management system,” remarks He.

The NewEase report, according to He, says the nation’s most expensive supercomputing projects are going to waste. To wit: the Tianhe-1, predecessor to the current world’s fastest system, has reportedly been unused since 2013 and sits idle inside of a leaky, moldy computer room inside the central China city of Changsha.

Apparently the computer was supposed to be delivered to Hunan University but there is a dispute between the university and the Hunan provincial government, which commissioned the system. An official on the government side said the transfer would be completed by early August.

China has been steadily increasing its supercomputer power, boosting its global share of the TOP500 list to 15.2 percent (that’s 76 systems), which is second behind the US, which operates 232 of the top machines, giving it a 46.4 percent share.

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