Image: Tianhe-1A supercomputer
The Tianhe-1A supercomputer, located at National Supercomputer Center, Tianjin, China. staff and news service reports
updated 10/28/2010 3:03:29 PM ET 2010-10-28T19:03:29

A leading Chinese research center has built the world's fastest supercomputer, an industry announcement said Thursday, underscoring the country's rise as a science and technology powerhouse.

The Tianhe-1A machine housed at the National Center for Supercomputing in the northern port city of Tianjin is capable of sustained computing of 2.507 petaflops, the equivalent of 2,507 trillion calculations, per second.

Put another way, the computer has 1.4 times the horsepower of the United States' speediest computer, according to Jack Dongarra, a University of Tennessee computer scientist. Dongarra maintains the official records of U.S. supercomputer rankings, with the U.S.' top machine at a national lab in Tennessee.

China's supercomputer "blows away" the competition from the United States, Dongarra said.

2002 was the last time a nation other than the United States took the lead in supercomputing, when it was bested by Japan. The U.S. reclaimed the supercomputing title in 2004.

A "single-day task" for Tianhe — which means Milky Way — "might take a mainstream dual-core personal computer 160 years to complete, working non-stop — if it can last that long," said China's National University of Defense Technology on its website.

The supercomputer is the "product of 200 computer scientists and two years' work," said Li Nan, chief coordinator of the university's program.

Zhou Xingming, an NUDT professor said the computer is "equipped with 6,144 Intel CPUs and 5,120 AMD GPUs (graphics processing units)," and was able to "store all 27 million books in the National Library of China four times."

The announcement was posted Thursday on several Chinese computer research websites. An official listing of the world's fastest supercomputers, the semiannual TOP500, is due to be issued Friday.

If verified, Tianhe-1A would be significantly faster than the current title holder, the U.S. Department of Energy's Cray XT5 Jaguar in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which topped the list issued in June at 1.75 petaflops per second.

"This new speed achieved by China means we may replace the U.S. to hold the new world record," Tianhe-1A Project Director Li Nan told state broadcaster CCTV in an interview.

But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley dismissed the advancement, saying he was confident the U.S. could regain the lead.

"I wouldn't call this a Sputnik moment," Crowley said, referring to the Russian craft that became, in 1957, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth and made many Americans worry that they were losing their competitive edge. "We have very significant capabilities in this regard, and I have no doubt the scientific community will pick up the challenge."

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Michael Norman, director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego, said China's announcement "demonstrates that high-performance computing is increasingly critical to scientific research and discovery around the world."

The center, he said, views the news as "a positive advancement for science and research in general. We also believe that in the coming years, the ranking of the most powerful supercomputers around the world will be an ever-changing landscape as not only China, but the U.S., Europe, and the rest of Asia introduce ever more powerful computers."

Supercomputers are used for complex work such as modeling weather systems, simulating nuclear explosions and designing jetliners.

The announcement highlighted how China is leveraging rapid economic growth and sharp increases in research spending to join the United States, Europe and Japan in the global technology elite.

A 15-year government plan issued in 2006 promises support for areas ranging from computers to lasers to genetics.

Chipmaker NVIDIA, better known for designing plug-in video cards bought by high-end computer gamers, said the supercomputer is powered by more than 7,000 of its graphics processor units.

The company is promoting its technology to be used for purposes other than graphics, including supercomputers running simulations in astrophysics and other math-heavy tasks.

Seven of the world's most powerful computers are in the United States, with two in China and one in Germany, according to NVIDIA.

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