China flexes its muscles in supercomputers

Market appetite for powerful computing in spotlight as top 500 list ranks Tianhe-2 as No 1

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 5:51am

Mainland China has strengthened its hold as the world's second-largest maker and user of high-performance computing servers, nearly 11 years since the market launched its first commercial supercomputer.

The market's appetite for more powerful computing infrastructure took the spotlight last week, when the latest list of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers ranked the Chinese-developed Tianhe-2 system at No1.

Thomas Zhou, the senior research manager for enterprise systems and software at IDC China, said: "The largest users on the mainland are the universities and national laboratories as well as the consumer electronics, manufacturing, and oil and gas industries."

International Business Machines, Hewlett-Packard and Dell - the top three suppliers of high-performance computing servers worldwide - are also the leading source of these machines on the mainland.

Supercomputers are traditionally used for complicated, compute-intense tasks like mapping the human genome and nuclear blast simulation. It is also widely adopted in commercial research, from creating video games and energy exploration to solving aeronautic problems.

Sugon, the Beijing-based company formerly known as Dawning Information Industry, is the biggest domestic manufacturer of supercomputers. It is followed by Inspur, a major information-technology systems supplier headquartered in Shandong province, and the government-run National University of Defence Technology (NUDT) in Hunan province.

"The People's Republic of China was way behind in applying high-performance computing for science and economic growth until around seven years ago," Zhou said.

"High-performance computing is now being used to design and create the best products, find oil, predict natural disasters, make better medicines and for military purposes."

Data from IDC showed steady domestic demand for supercomputers over the past two years. IDC forecast domestic sales of these machines would grow 12.5 per cent annually over the next five years.

Last year, 4,300 high-performance computing servers were sold on the mainland, most costing under US$500,000. In 2011, purchases totalled 4,200 units.

Zhou described Sugon and Inspur as the most important home-grown commercial suppliers of supercomputers. He said the NUDT was a "non-commercial player" in the market.

The university developed Tianhe-2, which achieved a record processing speed of 33.86 petaflops. That is equivalent to 33,860 trillion calculations per second.

It marked the mainland's return to the No1 spot of the top 500 supercomputer ranking since Tianhe-1A was the top system in November 2010. Tianhe-2 will be deployed at the National Supercomputer Centre in Guangzhou by the end of this year.