How China May Spur U.S. Supercomputing

NEW ORLEANS -- U.S. supercomputing dominance is being challenged in ways it has not seen before, and that may be the best thing to ever happen to this field, particularly in Washington's climate of cost cutting.

Of the top four supercomputer systems on the semi-annual Top 500 list released this week, two are in China , the top-ranked Tianhe-1A at 2.5 petaflops and in the third spot, its Nebulae system. Japan has the fourth-largest system. The U.S. is in second place with the Cray XT5 Jaguar system at 1.75 petaflops. The announcement came as experts in supercomputing were gathering in New Orleans for the SC10 conference .

Addison Snell, CEO of InterSect360, a high-performance computing research group, said Asia's showing in supercomputers will get the attention of political leaders.

"When it's all over the popular press that three of the top four supercomputers in the world, according to how they measure it, are in Asia, there is no way there is not a response in Congress to that," Snell said.

Earl Joseph, a high-performance computing analyst at IDC, said "global competitiveness" will drive HPC but it isn't about building the most powerful system in the world.

"The Chinese are not doing the old traditional supercomputing war," Joseph said. Instead, China's government is building 14 different petascale computing centers "because they recognize the competitive value of that."

Even Russia has realized that its products won't be as competitive without high performance computing, Joseph said, a reference to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's scalding criticism last year of his country's progress in supercomputing.

"I don't know what the budget situation will turn out to be in Congress," said Andy Keane, the general manager of Tesla business at Nvidia Corp., but supercomputing technology "is directly related to the progress we make on the economy."

Supercomputing allows research to simulate environments, and the more powerful the computer, the larger and more detailed the simulation, such as the working of a human cell at the atomic level. Supercomputers can also help manufacturers speed product development by allowing engineers to design, change and test products in virtual environments before producing physical prototypes. The largest systems are typically built by governments.

Nvidia is being helped by the U.S. government on high-performance computing through a research contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Keane said.

DARPA, in a request for proposals from vendors earlier this year, said that current processing systems are "grossly power-inefficient" and that technology trends "have reached a performance wall."

One of the means for solving this has been to turn to GPUs, which are roughly about 10 times more efficient than CPUs, said Keane. The DARPA contract is helping Nvidia to devote more research on the problems, he said.

Keane said it is possible to improve GPU efficiency by "another factor of about 100," to enable to work at exascale, a system that is roughly 1,000 times more powerful than a petaflop system.

"The computer that will be the fastest will be the computer that has the lowest energy per operation," he said.

Keane said the goal of an exascale system will be achieved by 2018, if not before, and he predicted by 2014-2015 there will be systems that are a third to halfway there, meaning in the range of 500 petaflops.

Nivida's GPU technology was used by China and Japan in building their top-ranked systems. The U.S. system, Jaguar, built entirely of CPUs, uses about 7 megawatts versus the GPU using the Chinese Tianhe-1A system at about 4 megawatts.

Systems that incorporate accelerator technology are spreading rapidly. SGI this week announced a new system that was built from the ground up with "optimized accelerator architecture," according to Bill Mannel, vice president of product marketing at SGI.

Mannel said the approach used to build this system, along with its relatively small size, puts it in range of an exaflop.

The SGI Prism XL, code-named Mojo, can deliver approximately one petaflop from a cabinet that is about the size of three standard 19" racks. It can support accelerator cards from Nvidia, Advanced Micro Devices and Tilera. The price range isn't being disclosed.

Despite the change in the top supercomputing rankings, the U.S. maintains a sizable lead in supercomputing. Of the 500 top supercomputers in the world, 274 are in the U.S.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Read more about mainframes and supercomputers in Computerworld's Mainframes and Supercomputers Topic Center.

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