This was a busy news week for Intel and supercomputers.
Around the same time that the Department of Energy announced that it had awarded a $200 million contract to Intel and systems maker Cray to build a powerful supercomputer for the Argonne National Laboratory, news also broke that the U.S. government is blocking Intel and Nvidia from selling their processors to four supercomputing centers in China over fears that the systems they're running—the world's fastest system, Tianhe-2, and the 17th fastest, Tianhe-1A—are being used in nuclear tests.
Both supercomputers are powered by Intel's Xeon server chips, and the Tianhe-2 also uses Intel's Xeon Phi coprocessors as accelerators. The Tianhe-1A system uses GPU accelerators from Nvidia.
The order, posted by the Department of Commerce in February, put the four supercomputing centers—the National University of Defense Technology, National Supercomputing Center in Changsha, National Supercomputing Center in Guangzhou, and National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin—on a list of companies that U.S. officials said are working against the security or foreign-policy interests of the United States, and now Intel and Nvidia have been banned from selling their processors to the institutions.
The list of institutions was developed by a government committee composed of representatives from the departments of Commerce, State, Energy, Defense and occasionally Treasury. The agencies in the order said the Chinese "supercomputers are believed to be used in nuclear explosive activities."
Intel reportedly was told by the Department of Commerce last year that it needed to get an export license if it wanted to continue selling Xeon and Xeon Phi chips to China for use in the Tianhe-2 and Tianhe-1A supercomputers. The application for the export license was turned down by U.S. regulators.
The Tianhe-2 supercomputer has sat atop the Top500 list of the world's fastest systems since June 2013. The computer is powered by more than 80,000 12-core Xeon E5-2692 processors, contains more than 3.1 million processing cores and has a peak performance of 33.68 petaflops (quadrillion calculations per second), almost double the power of the second supercomputer on the list, the Titan system at the Oak Ridge National Lab that comprises Cray's XK7 servers powered by chips from Advanced Micro Devices.
According to reports, researchers want to upgrade Tianhe-2 to push its performance capabilities beyond 110 petaflops, and were counting on Intel's new Xeon chips for the program.
The order banning Intel from selling processors to the Chinese supercomputer centers comes as the giant chip maker has been aggressively expanding its presence in the country, a huge market that is being pursued by many tech vendors. Intel's efforts go beyond supercomputers. The company a year ago created a $100 million fund and an innovation center in China to fuel the development of smart systems, such as smartphones and wearable devices, powered by its processors. In addition, the company last year also started partnering with Rockchip to create Intel-based systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) for tablets, and in September, Intel announced it was investing $1.5 billion in Chinese chip maker Tsinghua Unigroup, giving it a 20 percent stake in the state-owned venture that runs Chinese chip designers RDA Microelectronics and Spreadtrum Communications. Three months later, Intel invested another $1.6 billion over 15 years to upgrade a chip plant in the China.