Supercomputer Battle Between U.S., China Heats Up

The U.S. plans to build two supercomputers to knock China's current Top500 leader Tianhe-1A off its perch.

In what may be the beginnings of a new type of Cold War-style competition between the United States and China, the two countries are locked in battle to claim the top spots on the list of the world's fastest supercomputers. The 36th edition of the Top500 list of the world's most powerful supercomputers confirms the rumored takeover of the top spot by the Chinese Tianhe-1A system at the National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin, achieving a performance level of 2.57 petaflop/s (quadrillions of calculations per second). Of the Top 10, five are located in the United States.

The U.S.-built Jaguar system, meanwhile, achieved 1.75 petaflop/s running Linpack, the TOP500 benchmark application. This was good enough for a second place finish, though it represents a fall from its top ranking based on October tests. Third place is now held by a Chinese system called Nebulae, which was also knocked down one spot from the June 2010 Top500 list with the appearance of Tianhe-1A. Tsubame 2.0 at the Tokyo Institute of Technology is number four, while California-based Hopper, a Cray XE6 system at DOE's National Energy Research Scientific Computing (NERSC) Center, rounded out the top five.

Meanwhile, technology magazine Computerworld reported U.S. scientists are planning to build two 20-petaflop supercomputers-one from Oak Ridge National Laboratory home of the 1.75-petaflop system Jaguar, and an IBM-built supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Both systems are expected to be up and running by 2012, the magazine reported. "Personally I love [the competiton]," Jeremy Smith, director of director of the Center for Molecular Biophysics at Oak Ridge, to the publication. "In competing with other countries everybody gains and wins - that's why I'm excited about it."

The two Chinese systems and Tsubame 2.0 are all using NVIDIA GPUs (graphics processing units) to accelerate computation. In all, 17 systems on the TOP500 use GPUs as accelerators, with 6 using the Cell processor, ten of them using NVIDIA chips and one using ATI Radeon chips. China is also accelerating its move into high performance computing and now has 42 systems on the TOP500 list, moving past Japan, France, Germany and the UK to become the number two country behind the U.S.

Although the U.S. remains the leading consumer of high performance computing (HPC) systems with 275 of the 500 systems, this number is down from 282 in June 2010. The European share - 124 systems, down from 144 - is still larger than the Asian share (84 systems, up from 57). Dominant countries in Asia are China with 42 systems (up from 24), Japan with 26 systems (up from 18), and India with four systems (down from five).

The world's fastest computer, the Tianhe-1A, is a Nvidia-powered supercomputer that made its debut at the Annual Meeting of National High Performance Computing (HPC China 2010) in Beijing, set an October performance record of 2.507 petaflops, as measured by the Linpack benchmark. The Tianhe-1A was designed by the National University of Defense Technology in China. Nvidia reported the system is housed at National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin and is already fully operational. According to a Nvidia press statement, the Tianhe-1A supercomputer will be operated as an open-access system to use for large-scale scientific computations.

Linkpack is a software library for performing numerical linear algebra on digital computers and makes use of the BLAS (Basic Linear Algebra Subprograms) libraries for performing basic vector and matrix operations. The package solves linear systems whose matrices are general, banded, symmetric indefinite, symmetric positive definite, triangular and tridiagonal square.