Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee

The Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee is the fastest U.S. machine, but now just third in the world behind two computers in China.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory/Wikimedia

China overtakes U.S. supercomputing lead

China has claimed two computing crowns. A new supercomputer at China’s National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi in Jiangsu province has snagged the top spot on the latest TOP500 list of supercomputers, which was unveiled today at the 2016 International Supercomputing Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. The new machine, known as the Sunway TaihuLight, has a peak performance of 93 petaflop per second (Pflop/s), or 93 quadrillion calculations per second. That’s nearly three times the performance of its closest competitor, Tianhe-2, another Chinese supercomputer, and nearly 2 million times faster than a standard laptop. More important, for the first time China has overtaken the United States as the country with the largest installed supercomputing capacity.

“We’re seeing an inflection point,” says Horst Simon, a supercomputing expert and deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. Simon and a few other supercomputer experts update the TOP500 list twice a year to track trends in their field. Countries other than the United States have previously claimed the top spot for an individual machine’s performance, but this is the first time another country has eclipsed the United States in total supercomputing power. “We’ve seen this trend building for the last few years,” says Wu Feng, a supercomputing expert at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. “It shows that China is committed to a sustained investment in high-performance computing.”

According to the TOP500 list, China now has 167 of the world’s top 500 supercomputers, with a total capacity of 211 Pflop/s. The United States has 165 of the top machines, with a cumulative capacity of 173 Pflop/s. That’s a reversal of the rankings 15 years ago, when the United States had more than half of the world’s top 500 supercomputers, Simon says. Europe’s share, meanwhile, has dropped to 105 systems with a combined capacity of 115 Pflop/s. China’s supercomputing crown could pay off not just for research and engineering but for commerce: Chinese companies already have a 34% market share in the global market for supercomputers, a percentage that is growing fast. And Haohuan Fu, a supercomputer expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says the Chinese government is making a concerted effort to support supercomputing to propel advances in everything from life sciences research to manufacturing design for its companies.

According to Jack Dongarra, a supercomputing expert at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who keeps close tabs on international trends, China is expected to add another machine comparable to the Sunway supercomputer either late this year or early in 2017. The United States, meanwhile, isn’t expected to have one in the 100 Pflop/s range until the end of 2017. The most powerful U.S. machine, ranked third overall, is Titan, a 17.59 Pflop/s supercomputer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

China is now looking to extend its lead. Chinese officials announced recently that they expect to produce their first machine capable of running at 1000 Pflop/s, or 1 exaflop/s, in 2020. Such exascale machines should dramatically speed up a host of scientific and industrial computing tasks, such as modeling climate change and the activity of the human brain, searching for new high-performance materials, and designing energy-efficient car engines. DOE, which heads U.S. supercomputing efforts, has said it doesn’t expect to build its first exascale supercomputer until 2023 at the earliest, a target that has already slipped several years.

The Sunway machine marks a noteworthy step toward those goals, Dongarra says. The new supercomputer is powered by more than 10.6 million processor chips, which were designed and built in China, and consumes 15.4 megawatts (MW) of power. That means the Sunway machine carries out 6 billion calculations per watt, making it the third most efficient supercomputer ever designed. “That’s quite remarkable,” Simon says. “Usually the top systems are not at the top in efficiency.”

Even so, simply scaling up the current Sunway system to exascale is impractical, as the resulting machine would require on the order of 150 MW, enough to power thousands of homes. It’s more likely, Simon says, that achieving the computational efficiency needed to get to exascale will require technologies still under development, such as low-power 3D memory chips and links between processors that pass data as light instead of electrons.

An exascale machine could have payoffs beyond high-end computing. Although the worldwide market for supercomputers themselves is modest—smaller than sales of conventional consumer electronics—Simon and others note that supercomputing technology often trickles down to consumer markets. So if China’s researchers are the first to come up with the technology breakthroughs needed to reach exascale, the feat could supercharge their consumer electronics industry and spell danger for other electronics giants around the globe.