AMD gets supercomputing boost

China's Dawning takes wraps off Opteron-based supercomputer

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) got another vote of confidence in the power of its 64-bit Opteron processor this week when China's Dawning Information Industry took the wraps off an Opteron-based supercomputer, capable of handling more than 10 trillion floating operations per second (TFLOPS).

Alongside the Red Storm supercomputer being built by Cray for the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Sandia National Laboratories, Dawning's 4000A supercomputer is one of the largest and most powerful Opteron-based supercomputers to be announced thus far.

It packs more than 2,000 Opteron processors, with a total of 2TB of RAM and 30TB of hard-disk space. With a maximum performance level of 10 TFLOPS, the Dawning 4000A easily ranks among the 100 most powerful computers in the world. It can run either Linux or Microsoft's Windows operating system, according Li Yongming, a spokesman for Dawning.

While specifications for the system have been made public, the buyer has yet to be revealed. "We haven't announced the name of the buyer so it's not appropriate to talk about the price we have given them," Li said. "We'll announce these details when the time is appropriate."

Based in Beijing, Dawning is relatively unknown outside of China, but the company is considered one of the country's most advanced manufacturers of high-end servers. Like its better known sibling, Legend Group, Dawning was spun off from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and became an independent company in 1995.

The company wasted little time making its mark. In 1997, Dawning unveiled the first commercially available server from a Chinese company with parallel processing capabilities, the Dawning 1000 Plus.

Based on IBM's AIX operating system, the eight-way version of the Dawning 1000 Plus had eight 200MHz Power PC processors, each with 256MB of RAM and a 2GB hard-disk drive, and could offer sustained performance levels above 1.5 GFLOPS (billion floating operations per second). A 16-way version of the Dawning 1000 Plus was also manufactured, with at least one system sold outside China, to Cameroon.

Despite showing some impressive technological advances early on, however, Dawning has retained a low profile in China's server market.

"It's a very niche player. They're totally government focused," said Avneesh Saxena, vice president of computing systems at IDC Asia-Pacific. "They typically have high-end boxes."

In the last several years, Dawning has continued its push into high-end computing, rolling out a 3-TFLOPS supercomputer, the Dawning 4000L, in March. A 4.2-TFLOPs version of the machine was announced in June.

Dawning isn't the only Chinese company that has made a push into supercomputers. A system similar in performance to the Dawning 4000A was developed by Legend last year. The Deepcomp 1800 is based on 526 Intel. Xeon processors and offers a maximum performance of 10 TFLOPS. In use at the Academy of Mathematics and System Sciences at CAS, Deepcomp 1800 has 272GB of RAM and 6TB of hard disk space. 

Deepcomp 1800 is currently ranked No. 51 in a list of the top 500 computers maintained by the U.S. National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, the University of Tennessee and the University of Mannheim, in Germany.

By comparison, Cray's Opteron-based Red Storm supercomputer, which is scheduled to enter operation in 2004, outstrips both the Dawning 4000 series and Deepcomp 1800 in terms of performance. When it is operational, Red Storm will offer a maximum performance level of 40 TFLOPS and will be upgradable to 60 TFLOPS, according to the terms of the contract with the DOE, Cray said. The computer's design offers headroom for even greater performance and can be scaled to hundreds of TFLOPS, it said.

That puts the US$90 million Red Storm in the running to become the most powerful computer in the world, a position currently held by NEC's Earth Simulator at Japan's Earth Simulator Center, which is capable of up to 40 TFLOPS.

For China, it makes sense to have a government-backed company that can push the homegrown development of high-end computing systems, Saxeena said, citing U.S. export controls that limit what types of high-end systems may be exported to Chinese end users.

The development of systems like the Dawning 4000A "may not be driven by whether it makes business sense. It may be driven by this need to have something local here that they can use," he said.

"There has been some interest in the educational sector and [the defense sector] would have some requirements," Saxeena said, citing bio-IT and life sciences as areas where the Chinese educational sector has shown demand for high-end computers and server clusters.

In addition, Dawning's Li noted growing demand for supercomputers from Chinese companies, including those in the petroleum and financial industries, representing a shift from Dawning's traditional customer base of research institutes and government organizations. For example, the 4.2-TFLOPS Dawning 4000L supercomputer announced in June was sold to a subsidiary of state-owned China Petrochemical Corp., he said

For its part, AMD benefits from being able to point to supercomputers like the Dawning 4000A and Red Storm to build mindshare for its Opteron processors, Saxeena said, noting the growing use of x86 processors, like those from AMD rival Intel Corp., in high-end server clusters.

"This is a hot market," he said. "It may not be big numbers, but it will be in time."

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