China Breaks Ground on New Supercomputer Center

By Tiffany Trader

November 30, 2010

When you have the fastest supercomputer in the world, you don’t want to stick it in just any-old datacenter. So it is that China has released an artist’s rendering of the new National Supercomputing Center, which will house the 2.5-petaflop Tianhe-1A supercomputer, the fastest system in the world according to the latest TOP500 list. The disc-shaped, futuristic-looking facility would not seem out of place in outer space, but in reality will be located at Hunan University in Changsha, the capital of central China’s Hunan Province.

China's National Supercomputing CenterChina’s Xinhua News Agency published an image of the new center on Monday, the day after the official stone-laying ceremony. An article at Computerworld examines the significance of the new supercomputer and its glossy new digs in the context of China’s larger supercomputing ambitions, starting with slides from a presentation made by an official at the Supercomputing Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences at an exascale computing conference in October. The slides portray an aggressive schedule that if followed would make exascale computing a reality for China in the 2016 to 2020 timeframe.

From 2011-2015, China wants to construct a system in the 50 to 100 petaflop range. For comparison, the US has plans to deploy at least two 20-petaflop systems in 2012, one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the other at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The Tianhe-1A supercomputer will be used for the usual academic-leaning applications, such as weather forecasting, scientific research, pharmaceutical development and animation design, but it will also be used for military purposes. One slide from the October presentation shows a jet plane and a military ship with text that depicts the system will be used for “stealth design of airplanes” and RCS, which could stand for Radar Countermeasures System.

Roger Cliff, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., who studies China’s military capabilities, explained how supercomputers can be used to design stealth vehicles by calculating the radar cross-section of an aircraft or a ship. Based on computer models, aircraft or ships can be designed with shapes that offer the smallest possible radar cross-section, thus lessening the odds of detection.

Arguably the number one weapon in China’s military arsenal is cyber-intelligence. Wayne Ulman, the China issue manager at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, said in testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that the Chinese military “is working on a very comprehensive approach to information superiority.”

The Commission’s 2009 report to Congress states: “Chinese intelligence collection efforts are growing in scale, intensity, and sophistication. In addition, there has been a marked increase in cyber intrusions originating in China and targeting U.S. government and defense-related computer systems. This malicious activity has the potential to destroy critical infrastructure, disrupt commerce and banking systems, and compromise sensitive defense and military data.”

As a possibly telling side note, a photo from Sunday’s ground-breaking ceremony shows 11 people with two of them wearing what look like military uniforms.

Construction on the new National Supercomputing Center is expected to be completed by year’s end.

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