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China has built what may be the world's fastest computer, a signal that the Chinese are ready to present a serious challenge to the U.S. as the dominant force in supercomputing.
The Tianhe-1A, unveiled Thursday, set a performance record of 2.507 petaflops, easily surpassing the current record holder, the Cray XT5 Jaguar. Whether the Chinese system is officially crowned the world's fastest computer will have to wait a couple of weeks, when the Top 500 list is scheduled to be released at the International Supercomputing Conference in Germany.
In the meantime, the stats for the Tianhe-1A make it appear to be the leader. The system, powered by 7,168 Nvidia Tesla M2050 GPUs and 14,336 Intel Xeon CPUs, speeded past Jaguar's 1.75 petaflops. The latter supercomputer, housed at the Oak Ridge, Tenn., National Laboratory, uses 224,162 Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices. A petaflops is equal to 1,000 trillion operations per second.
Designed at the National University of Defense Technology in China, the Tianhe-1A comprises 103 computer racks that cover 17,000 square feet. The system consumes 4.04 megawatts of electricity.
The Tianhe-1A couldn't have been built without U.S.-made processors, which remain the best in the world. However, China developed the very fast interconnect technology that moves data between the processors and wrote the software that runs the supercomputer.
Within a couple of years, China's processor technology is expected to advance to the point of replacing U.S.-built chips, experts say. The country has embarked on a national effort to use home-grown technology for core components in supercomputers.
"Certainly there's some nationalistic pride in having the fastest computer, but it's also a signal that the U.S. is not the dominant force when it comes to supercomputing," said Jack Dongarra, a computing expert at the University of Tennessee who helped design the technology used in testing systems on the Top 500 list.
The Chinese are not the first to surpass the U.S. in supercomputing. Japan held the crown in 2002, which spurred the U.S. to work harder, Dongarra said.
"I would hope the same would happen again," Dongarra told InformationWeek. "We need to place more effort on certain aspects of how we do our scientific computing."
Specifically, the U.S. needs to spend more on education and on the development of the software, algorithms, models and other technologies that go into supercomputing, not just the hardware, Dongarra said.
The "so what" in having the fastest computer is the ability to perform scientific research faster and with more accuracy. This has implications in every industry that uses high-performance computing, such as biomedicine, weather forecasting and energy.
"These machines can provide a competitive advantage," Dongarra said.
The Tianhe-1A, housed at the National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin, China, is fully operational. The system is being operated as an open access system for large-scale scientific computations, according to China, which disclosed the supercomputer's existence at the HPC 2010 China conference.
China's latest achievement came four months after it nabbed the No. 2 slot in global computing with a system that clocked in at 1.271 petaflops.