The rise of China’s supercomputers

Lucy Hattersley

Monday 14 March 2016

China is emerging as a world force in supercomputers, while the US looks to strike back. But where does all this leave European supercomputing centres?

China is emerging as the world’s leading provider of supercomputers according to TOP500, the global foundation monitoring high-performance computing (HPC) systems.

To begin with, for six years in a row, China has held on to the number-one spot thanks to Tianhe-2, a supercomputer developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology.

More significantly still, China nearly tripled the number of systems on the list in 2015, while the number of supercomputers in the United States fell to its lowest point since TOP500 rankings began in 1993.

But China’s new-found ascendancy is also apparent when it comes to HPC provision worldwide. According to TOP500: “China’s role in high-performance computing is […] increasing in the manufacturing arena, with Lenovo now counted among the vendors of systems on the TOP500 list. Following its acquisition of IBM’s x86 business last year, Lenovo now has 25 systems on the list, up from just three systems on the July 2015 list.”

SuperMUC Petascale System

Europe has traditionally done well from buying supercomputers from China. A typical example is Lenovo’s SuperMUC Petascale System, housed at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre of the Bavarian Academy of Science and Humanities. With more than 241,000 cores and a combined peak performance over 6.8 Petaflops, it’s one of the fastest HPC systems in the world.

As a research system, the SuperMUC is open to all European researchers. Recent projects include quantitative dynamic banking systems, modelling the African monsoon and the development of new antibiotics.

Connected to the SuperMUC are two dominant display systems: a large 4K stereoscopic power wall and a five-sided CAVE artificial virtual reality environment (this uses projectors to display visual data on the walls of a room-sized cube that users can walk around).

Power and efficiency become vitally important in HPC, and the SuperMUC is completely water-cooled, making it 40 per cent more efficient. The heat emissions are also captured and used to heat campus buildings, resulting in $1.25 million in energy savings per year.

“SuperMUC enables previously unattainable energy efficiency along with an extremely high peak power through the massive parallelism of Intel multicore processors and the use of innovative hot water cooling technology,” explains Professor Arndt Bode, head of Leibniz Supercomputing Centre. “This approach could enable the sector to build even more powerful supercomputers in the future, while keeping the power consumption under control.”

Lenovo’s HPC commitment

“HPC is fueling major advancements in areas with high impact to both industry and humanity,” says Adalio Sanchez, senior vice president of Lenovo’s Enterprise Systems Group. “These span the discovery of the world’s new energy reserves to biomedical research improving global healthcare,” Sanchez pursues.

“To take advantage of this opportunity, clients seek an IT partner with extensive skills and experience in designing solutions that can meet their unique needs. Our Lenovo team has a long heritage of industry expertise in HPC leading-edge technology. We are investing in innovation – both in research and development and in services and support – to help clients capitalise on emerging trends in HPC, including cloud and big data analytics.”

‘Arms race’ in high-performance computing

However, tensions between China and the United States could see European supercomputing centres falling off the list, as a cyber arms race heats up. Last year, China placed a curb on exports of its supercomputers, with exporters needing a license to sell computers over 8-teraflops. The curb is said to be in response to ‘national security concerns’ but came after the US blocked a shipment of Intel chips being used to update Tianhe-2.

Much of this is about making a statement. “The arms race in high-performance computing has always been about who has the computer which can do the most flops,” suggests Mark Parsons, executive director of the EPCC (University of Edinburgh’s supercomputing centre).

“Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” President Obama recently said in his State of Union address, in the face of such challenges. “We built a space program almost overnight. And 12 years later, we were walking on the moon.”

Huge investment in supercomputer does have a practical purpose, however, beyond mere posturing. Whoever has such a supercomputer can accurately model nuclear weapons, vital since the ban on actual nuclear testing came into effect in 1996 with the signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

In 2015, the number of American supercomputers on the TOP500 list dropped from 231 to 200, while China’s rose exponentially from 37 to 109. At this rate it seems pretty clear that, unless the US does take serious measures to reverse the current trend in supercomputer provision, China will swiftly overtake it. In the meantime, with its tally having fallen from 141 to 108, Europe could well be left trailing in their wake.