There’d been speculation that it had happened for a couple of weeks now, and yesterday it was officially confirmed—China now has the world’s fastest supercomputer.
According to TOP500, an annual list of the world’s fastest computers, China’s Tianhe-1A system at the National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin overtook the US Department of Energy’s Cray XT5 ‘Jaguar’ system. The Tianhe-1A can reportedly undertake 2.57 quadrillion calculations per second, significantly more than the 1.75 petaflop/s achieved by Jaguar.
According to Jack Dongarra, a professor at the University of Tennessee's department of electrical engineering, the Chinese breakthrough should be seen as a ‘wake-up call’ to the United States and others. Speaking to CNET, Dongarra said if the US hopes to respond to having been dethroned, it should try thinking of supercomputers as race cars.
‘In order to run the race car, you need a driver. You need to effectively use the machine. And we need to invest in various levels within the supercomputer ecology,’ he reportedly said. ‘The ecology is made up of the hardware, the operating system, the compiler, the applications, the numerical libraries, and so on. And you have to maintain an investment across that whole software stack in order to effectively use the hardware. And that's an aspect that sometimes we forget about. It's underfunded.’
Does the new Chinese lead matter? Writing in The Atlantic, Alex Madrigal said supercomputers allow countries ‘to push the scientific edge’. Writing before the official announcement, he said: ‘There are a wide variety of fields that depend on the astounding simulation capabilities of today's supercomputers…But it's worth noting that in the United States, these high-performance machines are primarily used to simulate nuclear weapons. It wouldn't be surprising if the Chinese computers are given that task, too.’
So will this be a ‘Sputnik moment’ for the United States, when it starts to question not just the immediate issue, but also the longer-term implications of its lost technological edge—as happened after the Soviet Union became the first country to successfully launch a satellite into orbit?
One small consolation for the United States: Intel was quick to announce that its Xeon 5600 series processors are ‘at the heart of the world's most powerful supercomputer.’