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China smashes supercomputer speed record


With its latest all-homegrown lightning-fast machine, China has pulled ahead of the US in the global race for processing power. Viviane Richter reports. 


China's previous record-holding supercomputer, the Tianhe-1 in Tianjin. It has been overtaken in the speed stakes by the Sunway TaihuLight. China has held the record for seven years now.
Visual China Group/Getty Images

Chinese scientists have created the fastest supercomputer in the world, smashing the previous record by a factor of three.

The Sunway TaihuLight clocks up a staggering 93 quadrillion, or 93 million billion, operations every second. The previous champion, Tianhe-2, churns through 33 quadrillion.

TaihuLight sports more than 10 million processor cores – compare that to a humble four in your MacBook Pro – and runs on a Linux-based operating system.

For memory, it has a little over 1.3 petabytes of RAM, which isn’t much compared to smaller systems on the list. RIKEN’s K supercomputer which is nine times slower has 1.4 petabytes, for instance. (A petabyte is 1,000 million million bytes.)

But TaihuLight wins on energy efficiency.

The system draws 15.2 megawatts of power, 2.5 megawatts less than the slower Tianhe-2. That’s churning through six billion operations for every watt, an “excellent” energy efficiency according to TOP500, a research organisation that ranks the most powerful supercomputers in the world, which announced the record.

With the system completely homegrown, China has nosed ahead of the US in the supercomputer race.

It’s not the first time a Chinese supercomputer has held the speed record – Chinese machines have secured that spot for seven years straight.

The Sunway TaihuLight System's computer room, now officially the world's faster supercomputer.
Sunway TaihuLight

But it is the first time China has displaced the US for the most supercomputers in the top 500. From 2001 to June 2016, China went from listing none to 167 systems. The US is trailing with 165, followed by Japan with 29 systems.

Residing at the National Supercomputing Centre in Wuxi, TaihuLight is ready to crunch data.

And scientists will be putting those speedy bits to work for engineering and research, such as climate, weather, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and data analytics.

Three applications running on TaihuLight are also nominated for the Gordon Bell Award, which recognises “peak performance or special achievements in scalability and time-to-solution on important science and engineering problems”.

The first is for cloud-resolving simulations of Earth’s atmosphere, the second is for simulating ocean waves at ultra-high resolution, and the third calculates how two liquid chemicals interact when mixed.

“The fact that there are sizeable applications and Gordon Bell contender applications running on the system is impressive,” wrote University of Tennessee computer scientist Jack Dongarra in a report.

It “shows that the system is capable of running real applications and [is] not just a ‘stunt machine’”, he added.

TaihuLight was formally introduced Tuesday at the International Supercomputing Conference in Frankfurt.

Vivian ritchter 2016.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Viviane Richter is a freelance science writer based in Melbourne.
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