China is building a 100-petaflop supercomputer

The Tianhe-2 supercomputer, slated to be deployed in 2015, could help keep China competitive with the future supercomputers of other countries

As the U.S. launched what's expected to be the world's fastest supercomputer at 20 petaflops, China is building a machine that is intended to be five times faster when it is deployed in 2015.

China's Tianhe-2 supercomputer will run at 100 petaflops (quadrillion floating-point calculations per second), according to the Guangzhou Supercomputing Center, where the machine will be housed.

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Tianhe-2 could help keep China competitive with the future supercomputers of other countries, as industry experts estimate machines will start reaching 1,000-petaflop performance by 2018.

The Tianhe-2 is not China's first attempt at building a world-beating supercomputer. It briefly took the top spot on the world's list of most powerful supercomputers in 2010 with the Tianhe-1A. That computer is now ranked fifth in the world with a theoretical peak speed of 4.7 petaflops, and uses processors from Intel and Nvidia.

Like the Tianhe-1A, the Tianhe-2 will also be designed by China's National University of Defense Technology.

The Chinese government is pushing the development of the country's supercomputing technology, according to Zhang Yunquan, a professor at the Institute of Software Chinese Academy of Sciences, who also keeps track of China's top supercomputers.

The government is aiming for China's supercomputers to reach 100 petaflops in 2015, and then 1 exaflop (1,000 petaflops), in 2018, he said. This comes from China's "863 program", which was founded in 1986 and is meant to help accelerate the country's development in key technologies.

"Taking the top spot in the world's fastest supercomputers gave us a lot of drive, and gave us more confidence to develop better machines," he said. But while China has largely relied on U.S. chips and software to develop its supercomputers, Zhang said this could gradually change as the country invests more in developing its own homegrown technology.

A clear example of this was when last year China's Sunway Bluelight supercomputer grabbed headlines for using a domestically developed processor, the Shenwei 1600.

"This showed that we can make a supercomputer capable of 1 petaflop of performance with our own technology," Zhang said. "I think in the future, as China tries to reach for exascale computing, the designs of these new supercomputers could fully rely on domestic processors. I wouldn't dismiss the possibility."

"But of course, we could take a different road, and end up using both foreign and domestic chips," he added.

China isn't the only one aiming to deliver 100-petaflop computing by 2015. The European Union, Japan and the U.S. have similar ambitions, said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee who also compiles the list of the world's top 500 supercomputers.

"At this point future statements are easy," he said in an e-mail, noting that there were still technical and financial challenges in building more powerful supercomputers.

China's homegrown supercomputing industry is also still behind the U.S., said Chen Dexun, a senior engineer at the supercomputing center where China's Sunway Bluelight machine is housed.

"This was like a trial," he said of the government decision to use domestically developed processors in the Sunway Bluelight. "Before, we were always using U.S. chips, and so we wanted to see our abilities in making these processors."

As the industry develops, China could also move toward selling its supercomputing technology to places such as Japan and Europe, Chen said.

"But obviously, this technology would never reach the U.S.," he said, referencing the recent U.S. government concerns over the security of Chinese telecommunication equipment being used in the country.

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