China’s Exascale Ambitions

By Tiffany Trader

October 11, 2013

“Beware the sleeping dragon. For when she awakes the Earth will shake.”

— Winston Churchill, speaking about China

For two decades, has published a biannual list of the world’s fastest computing machines. For the first 17 years, the competition for the number one spot was a back-and-forth match between the United States and Japan. But in November 2010, China cracked the coveted pole position with the Tianhe-1A supercomputer.


Tianhe-1, which translates into Milky Way, was developed by the Chinese National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) in Changsha, Hunan. When it was unveiled in October 2009, it was immediately ranked as the world’s fifth fastest supercomputer in the TOP500 list released at SC09. The upgraded Tianhe 1-A, equipped with 14,336 Xeon processors and 7,168 NVIDIA Tesla GPUs, brought the machine’s top LINPACK speed from 563 teraflops to 2.56 petaflops. The boost rocketed the system to the number one spot in November 2010, beating out the University of Tennessee’s Jaguar supercomputer and giving China bragging rights as a technology superpower. It was the first time that a non-US system held the number one spot in six years.

The US came back again in June 2012 with the IBM Sequoia Blue Gene/Q, which had a LINPACK performance of 16.32 petaflops. In November 2012, the title changed hands again, claimed by an upgraded Jaguar – renamed Titan and packing 17.59 petaflops LINPACK. Despite the impressive benchmark, Titan’s reign was short-lived. Seven months later, in June 2013, China reestablished list dominance with its upgraded system, Tianhe-2. With a remarkable 33.86 petaflops LINPACK, the Chinese system beat out second place finisher Titan by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.

China’s Tianhe-2 remains the fastest supercomputer in the world. What’s more, the Tianhe-2 project is two years ahead of schedule. The supercomputer was originally scheduled to be completed in 2015, but the latest reports say that it is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2013.

Consider the technical specifications of this phenomenal computing machine: 16,000 computer nodes, each comprising two Intel Ivy Bridge Xeon processors and three Xeon Phi coprocessors for a total of 3,100,000 cores; 1.4 petabytes of RAM; and a proprietary high-speed interconnect, called TH Express-2, that was designed by NUDT. Tianhe-2 has a maximum power draw of 17.6 megawatts, with an additional 24 megawatts allocated for cooling.

A recent Guardian article explores what China’s still-emerging supercomputing prowess tells us about the country’s absorptive state. The United States is still the world’s leading supercomputer power with 252 top 500 systems, but China is catching up – with 66 of the top 500 supercomputers. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers asserts that Tianhe-2’s win “symbolizes China’s unflinching commitment to the supercomputing arms race.”

The race to build the first exascale supercomputer is still in progress and the US, EU, Japan, India, Russia and China have all expressed their intentions to reach this goal. But most experts, according to the Guardian piece, say the odds are in China’s favor. It’s been two years since Obama called on Americans to come together for “our generation’s Sputnik moment” during his 2011 State of the Union address, but the response from funding bodies has been lackluster. An exascale plan was only recently submitted to Congress and no new funds have been granted yet.

China by contrast has maintained a targeted investment strategy, spending approximately $163 billion USD on R&D in 2012. Since 2008, it has increased funding by 18 percent each year at the same time as other countries’ budgets were flatlining.

Even though China can claim the leading system, it has had to rely on US technology to do so. This is a key point of the Guardian article, which was penned by James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex; Kirsten Bound, head of international innovation at the independent UK charity Nesta; and Tom Saunders, a policy and research analyst at Nesta.

“In one sense, Tianhe-2 is an achievement that the Americans should be every bit as proud of as the Chinese,” write the authors. But China is hard at work designing and manufacturing its own technologies and most experts agree that it won’t be long before China produces its first 100 percent home-grown supercomputer.

China is particularly adept at absorbing, adapting and improving on foreign-developed technologies. Supercomputing is one of the main sectors this kind of absorptive process is taking place, but it’s also occurred in other high-profile cases, for example high-speed rail network, advanced nuclear reactors and space exploration.

Note the authors: “These examples suggest that what China’s President Xi Jinping has termed ‘innovation with Chinese characteristics’ will not be a straightforward path from imported to home-grown innovation, but a messier process in which the lines between Chinese and non-Chinese ideas, technologies and capabilities are harder to draw.”

The Nesta report, China’s Absorptive State: research, innovation and the prospects for China-UK collaboration, will be available next week, scheduled to coincide with the first high-level UK government delegation to Beijing for over a year.

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