China shook the international establishment last year when it unveiled the fastest supercomputer on the planet, besting its closest American rival by the number-crunching equivalent of a country mile. But last week, the Middle Kingdom’s newest supercomputer arrived with a much greater rumble — even though it’s unlikely to crack the world top 10.
Revealed last week at a conference in Jinan, China and profiled in The New York Times, the Sunway BlueLight MPP supercomputer doesn’t use microprocessors from Intel or AMD. It uses a chip designed by the Chinese themselves — and it’s not the Chinese microprocessor the supercomputing community was expecting. In other words, the Chinese are developing two microprocessors that could shift not only bragging rights in the worldwide supercomputer game, but the general market for server silicon.
“It shows that there’s a significant effort underway in China to build multicore processors that can be put into the world’s fastest computers,” Jack Dongarra, the University of Tennessee professor who oversees the annual list of the Top 500 supercomputers, tells Wired. “And you have to wonder what their strategy is in terms of pushing these chips outside of their borders.”
Before the Sunway was uncloaked, Dongarra was expecting China to reveal a computing cluster based on an eight-core chip its engineers were developing under the “Loongson” or “Godson” name. Instead, the Sunway uses a previously unknown chip dubbed the “ShenWei SW-3.” Harnessing 8,700 of these chips, the cluster can, in theory, handle more than 1,000 trillion calculations a second — aka a petaflop.
That will likely put the Sunway among the top 20 fastest supercomputers when Dongarra and crew unveil their official list next month. For the University of Tennessee computer scientist, this shows that China is gaining ground on the big American chip-makers faster than expected. “China hasn’t done much in the way of microprocessor development over the past 20 years,” he says. “But it won’t take them 20 years to catch up. It’s going to take them a very short time.”
Intel and AMD did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did the unnamed Chinese representative who emailed the Sunway’s benchmark numbers to Dongarra last week. Dr. David K. Kahaner, the president and founding director of the Asian Technology Information Program, tells us that the Chinese briefed him on the Sunway in April and that they claimed it would achieve 75% efficiency on the Linpack benchmark, which means its average performance would be about 75% percent of its peak one-petaflop speed. This is similar to what the Chinese claimed last week.
According to reports from Jinan, the ShenWei microprocessor was designed at a supercomputing institute in China and manufactured in Shanghai, and it uses a new instruction set — not the venerable x86 instruction set used by Intel and AMD. The chip runs at about 1GHz, which is well under the speed of the latest Intel and AMD chips, but a lower clock also means it consumes less power.
Last fall, a separate Chinese operation unveiled the Tianhe-1A, based on Intel’s Xeon processors, which was then the fastest supercomputing on earth. It was soon topped by a Japanese cluster known as the K Computer, and the Japanese will likely retain their crown when the list of the Top 500 supercomputers is officially revealed. But in many ways, the Sunway has already stolen its thunder.
In revealing the Sunway — which was apparently installed in Jinan in September — the Chinese also unveiled a list of the country’s top 100 supercomputers. Eighty-five still use Intel and fourteen used AMD, but the plan is to move to the lot towards homegrown hardware. The supercomputing game isn’t a huge part of Intel’s or AMD’s business, but there’s a certain amount of prestige wrapped up in these massive machines, and the same chips can be used in ordinary servers.
“Don’t think of this in terms of supercomputing,” says Dongarra. “There’s a low-end that where these chips can work. You can imagine these chips replacing all the Intel chips in the China.”
Cade Metz is the editor of Wired Enterprise. If you have a NEWS TIP related to this story -- or to anything else in the world of big tech -- please email him. His address is cade_metz [a] wired.com.