China Muscles Out US on List of Fastest Supercomputers

A new powerful system from China sits at the top of the Top500 list, and China is now home to more of those supercomputers than the United States.

Chinese supercomputer

China is now the world's dominant player in the global supercomputing space.

The country kept its position atop the Top500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers with a new system that not only is markedly faster and more efficient than the previous No. 1 supercomputer—also from China—but also is powered by processors designed and manufactured in China.

In addition, China now has more supercomputers on the list—167—than the United States, with 165, the first time in the more than two decades that the list has been kept that the United States is not home to the largest number of computers.

The latest list was released June 20 at the ISC High Performance 2016 show in Frankfurt, Germany. The Top500 list is released twice every year.

China's ascension comes less than two months after a report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) warned that the United States was in danger of losing its edge in the high-performance computing (HPC) field due to fast-growing competition primarily from China. In its report, the ITIF also outlined steps Congress needs to make—from increasing funding to amending export control regulations—to keep the country at the forefront of HPC and supercomputing development.

"Recognizing that both the development and use of high-performance computing are vital for countries' economic competitiveness and innovation potential, an increasing number of countries have made significant investments and implemented holistic strategies to position themselves at the forefront of the competition for global HPC leadership," report authors Stephen Ezell and Robert Atkinson wrote. "The report details how China, the European Union, Japan, and other nations have articulated national supercomputing strategies and announced significant investments in high-performance computing."

President Obama last year issued an executive order aimed at accelerating the development of high-performance computing systems in the United States.

The United States historically has been the dominant player in the space, though its position has eroded over the past several years. In the last Top500 list released in November 2015, the United States had 200 systems on the list. However, it was down from the 231 on the list released in July 2015. China, meanwhile, placed 109 systems on the list, almost three times the country had on the July list.

China has been aggressive not only in developing faster supercomputers, but also creating the technologies that can be used in them. The new No. 1 system on the list, Sunway TaihuLight, is an example of this. The massive system provides 93 petaflops/second (quadrillions of calculations per second) of performance and is more than twice as fast and three times as efficient as Tianhe-2, the Chinese system it displaced after being at the top of the previous six Top500 lists. Tianhe-2, powered by Intel's 12-core Xeon E5-2692 processors and using Chinese interconnect chips, offers 33.86 petaflops/second of performance.

Sunway TaihuLight was built by the National Research Center of Parallel Computer Engineering and Technology (NRCPC) and installed at the National Supercomputing Center in China. The system uses 40,960 Sunway SW26010 processors that hold more than 10.6 million cores. It's five times faster than Titan, a system at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory based on Cray's XK7 systems powered by AMD's Opteron chips. Titan is the fastest U.S. supercomputer on the list, coming in at No. 3.

The new Chinese system also is among the most efficient, with a peak power consumption under load of 6 Gflops/watt, according to organizers of the Top500 list.

The United States is making a push to continue competing in the supercomputing space, particularly as the field moves toward exascale computing early in the next decade. The Department of Energy in 2014 signed up IBM and GPU vendor Nvidia to build two 150-petaflop supercomputers—Summit, for the Oak Ridge facility, and Sierra, for the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Those systems aren't due to go online until 2017 or 2018, and another supercomputer—Aurora—isn't scheduled until 2019.