China science

Supercomputer superpower China takes biggest lead over US in 25 years

But China still has a decade to go in catching up in software for the machines, scientist says

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2017, 8:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 9:46am

China has extended its lead over the United States in supercomputing supremacy, claiming a much bigger share of the world’s fastest machines.

China had 202 of the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers compared with the US total of 143, the fewest American machines on the TOP500 list since it was first compiled a quarter of a century ago.

The result, released on Monday, is a reversal of the rankings in May when the US had 169 of the top 500 and China 159. In June last year China had 167 of the systems while the US had 165.

The list, produced twice a year, rates supercomputers based on speed in a benchmark test by specialists from Germany and the US.

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China’s Sunway TaihuLight and Tianhe-2 are the two fastest supercomputers in the rankings, with Switzerland taking third place, Japan fourth and the US fifth.

The Sunway TaihuLight has been the world’s fastest since last year and was the first machine of its kind completely made in China to take the top spot. It runs at a speed of 93 petaflops, while the US Department of Energy’s Titan performs at 17.6 petaflops.

Located in China’s National Supercomputer Centre in the eastern city of Wuxi, the Sunway TaihuLight is used for climate modelling and life science research.

Such room-sized computing stations also have roles to play in fending off cybersecurity, hacking and terrorist threats.

China may have gained on the US but the competition does not end here – the US Department of Energy plans to plough US$258 million into developing the first exascale supercomputer capable of performing well above existing levels.

Cao Jianwen, a researcher working at the State Key Laboratory of Computer Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the list did not adequately reflect the country’s overall supercomputing strength.

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Cao said that even though China had the fastest supercomputers, it still lagged behind the US and Japan in the development of software to run the machines.

“The machines are ultimately made to realise programmes designed by humans. Owning the fastest supercomputers lays a good foundation for China to catch up, but it could take another decade to see how China can maximise their use,” he said.

“The supercomputer race is basically a race of economies. Whoever puts in the most money wins.”

Cao said IBM’s 200 petaflop supercomputer in the US would probably overtake China’s Sunway TaihuLight next year.