China vs. US Race to the First ExaFLOPS Supercomputer is Heating Up

China's Tianhe-2 Supercomputer
China's Tianhe-2 Supercomputer

The US Department of Energy (DOE) is boosting research and development funding into its exaFLOPS supercomputing program by $258 million in an effort to catch up to China’s four year lead at the top of the supercomputing pack.

The DOE announced that six U.S. companies will be given funding from the its Exascale Computing Project (ECP) to accelerate the development of the US’ first exascale supercomputer.

The awarded companies will get funding to work on maximizing the energy efficiency and performance of exascale supercomputers, which the DOE believes are critical for US to maintain leadership against China in areas such as national security, manufacturing, industrial competitiveness, and energy and earth sciences.

The DOE will provide $258 million in funds that will be dispersed over a three year period to the companies which themselves will contribute at least 40 percent of their total project cost, bringing the total investment to at least $430 million.

“Continued U.S. leadership in high performance computing is essential to our security, prosperity, and economic competitiveness as a nation,” said Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry.

“These awards will enable leading U.S. technology firms to marshal their formidable skills, expertise, and resources in the global race for the next stage in supercomputing—exascale-capable systems.”

The six US companies taking part in the DOE project are, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Cray Inc. (CRAY), Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), International Business Machines (IBM), Intel Corp. (Intel) and NVIDIA Corp. (NVIDIA).

The DOE’s  program will support R&D in hardware, software, and application development – with the ultimate goal of building at least one exascale-capable system by 2021.

Exascale systems will be at least 50 times faster than the US’ most powerful computer today, and the global race for this technological dominance is fierce.

While the U.S. has five of the 10 fastest computers in the world, its most powerful ranks third behind two systems in China.

TOP500 Supercomputers 2016
TOP500 Supercomputers 2016

As of June 2017 the US was in 4th place in the top 10 ranking of supercomputers behind 1st and 2nd place Chinese supercomputers and a 3rd place Swiss supercomputer, Piz Daint.

China Is Even More Ambitious 

China is planning to develop a prototype for an exascale computer by the end of this year, and unveil a full exaFLOPS capable supercomputer by 2020, one year ahead of the US DOE’s plans.

“A complete computing system of the exascale supercomputer and its applications can only be expected in 2020, and will be 200 times more powerful than the country’s first petaflop computer Tianhe-1, recognized as the world’s fastest in 2010,” said Zhang Ting, an engineer with China’s National Supercomputer Center.

China believes that exascale computers will give it a technological edge in the development of its other high-tech programs.

In June of last year, China unveiled the world’s current fastest supercomputer — the Sunway TaihuLight — that has a peak performance of 124.5 petaFLOPS, it is the first and only system so far to exceed 100 petaFLOPS.

China has been rapidly building up its supercomputing industry, and has independently developed all the required technologies domestically including microprocessors.

The US has banned the sale of high-end processors to China’s supercomputer builders since 2015 in an effort to slow down China’s progress, many industry experts ridiculed the move as being “foolish or dangerously misinformed”, arguing that while the ban may slow China’s progress in the short-term it would also add impetus to China’s own domestic processor industry.

China’s Sunway TaihuLight, supercomputer, photo released by the Xinhua News

A year later the industry experts were proved right when the Sunway TaihuLight relied on no foreign made microprcessors and was instead powered entirely by Chinese built SW26010 260-core manycore processors.

The $258 million boost in funding from the DOE may not be enough if the US wants to beat China to the exaFLOPS finish line.


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