Sixteen years ago, China didn’t have a single computer listed (pdf, p.12) among the world’s top 500 supercomputers, machines whose enormous processing power is required for the complex modeling that can lead to new scientific and medical discoveries.
Now, it has surpassed the US by a record margin—nearly 60—to become the nation with the most supercomputers, according to the latest Top 500 survey, one of the most comprehensive reports tracking high-performance computing. The report, out Monday (Nov. 13), came during the SC conference, an annual international meeting on high-performance computing networking since 1988, held this year in Denver.
The TOP 500 list, which is updated twice a year, has been ranking supercomputers for the past 25 years by the speed with which they perform mathematical calculations. Performance is measured in petaflops, or one thousand trillion floating point operations per second. Based on this measurement, China has a whopping 202 of the 500 supercomputers with the fastest calculation speeds in the world, followed by the US with 143. According to the list, the US’s number of these systems has shrunk to its lowest since the list was first composed in 1993.
China did overtake the US before—last summer—but only by two (paywall), and then fell behind again. The gains reflect China’s determination to transform from a low-cost manufacturing hub to a global leader in scientific innovation in areas ranging from artificial intelligence to genetic research (paywall).
What do supercomputers do, exactly? They are bulky, expensive systems equipped with tens of thousands of processors to perform intensive calculations. Sunway TaihuLight, the world’s fastest supercomputer since June 2016, with a calculation speed of 93 petaflops per second (Pflop/s), has over 10.6 million cores—compared to a MacBook that has four cores. At Sunway’s peak performance, the calculations could even reach 125.4 Pflop/s, according to the University of Tennessee.
Built entirely with made-in-China chips, Sunway now sits in China’s National Supercomputing Center in the eastern city of Wuxi, and has been used for calculations in areas that China has been seeking to take the lead in. The machine was used for wave forecasting —a useful modeling tool for assessing climate change as height, frequency, and direction are affected by climate patterns. China’s president Xi Jinping recently said the country is “taking a driving seat” in fighting climate change, and being able to produce cutting-edge research in this domain will help.
Sunway also participated in an extensive turbulence simulation for China’s first space station, Tiangong 1, launched in 2011 as part of China’s scientific push to make the country a space superpower. It took the computer only 20 days to finish a task that would normally take 12 months.
In the world of supercomputer racing, however, things can change in the blink of an eye. The US still occupies four spots of the world’s top 10 fastest supercomputers, according to the Top 500 list, compared with two from China. The US Department of Energy is working to launch IBM-system-backed Summit which runs at 200 Pflop/s in 2018, according to a Computerworld report.
Jeff Nicols, associate director at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory under the DOE, said in a video introducing Summit that the supercomputer could be “five to 10 times greater than the performance of Titan (video)”—currently the top American supercomputer on the Top 500 list.
The next big race is also on, to build an “exascale” computer—which can perform a billion billion operations a second (1,000 Pflop/s). The US has said it will achieve this milestone with the Aurora by 2021. China hopes to do it by 2020.