October 31, 2012, 6:26 AM — As the U.S. launched what's expected to be the world's fastest supercomputer at 20 petaflops, China is building a machine that is intended to be five times faster when it is deployed in 2015.
China's Tianhe-2 supercomputer will run at 100 petaflops (quadrillion floating-point calculations per second), according to the Guangzhou Supercomputing Center, where the machine will be housed.
Tianhe-2 could help keep China competitive with the future supercomputers of other countries, as industry experts estimate machines will start reaching 1,000-petaflop performance by 2018.
The Tianhe-2 is not China's first attempt at building a world-beating supercomputer. It briefly took the top spot on the world's list of most powerful supercomputers in 2010 with the Tianhe-1A. That computer is now ranked fifth in the world with a theoretical peak speed of 4.7 petaflops, and uses processors from Intel and Nvidia.
Like the Tianhe-1A, the Tianhe-2 will also be designed by China's National University of Defense Technology.
The Chinese government is pushing the development of the country's supercomputing technology, according to Zhang Yunquan, a professor at the Institute of Software Chinese Academy of Sciences, who also keeps track of China's top supercomputers.
The government is aiming for China's supercomputers to reach 100 petaflops in 2015, and then 1 exaflop (1,000 petaflops), in 2018, he said. This comes from China's "863 program", which was founded in 1986 and is meant to help accelerate the country's development in key technologies.
"Taking the top spot in the world's fastest supercomputers gave us a lot of drive, and gave us more confidence to develop better machines," he said. But while China has largely relied on U.S. chips and software to develop its supercomputers, Zhang said this could gradually change as the country invests more in developing its own homegrown technology.
A clear example of this was when last year China's Sunway Bluelight supercomputer grabbed headlines for using a domestically developed processor, the Shenwei 1600.
"This showed that we can make a supercomputer capable of 1 petaflop of performance with our own technology," Zhang said. "I think in the future, as China tries to reach for exascale computing, the designs of these new supercomputers could fully rely on domestic processors. I wouldn't dismiss the possibility."
"But of course, we could take a different road, and end up using both foreign and domestic chips," he added.