Supercomputers, which are up to a million times faster than the typical desktop PC, are still staples in the data warehouses of national laboratories and universities in the US, Japan and Western Europe. But over the last few years, the falling cost of supercomputer systems has allowed a broader range of corporations and institutions, including many in China and India, to buy them for everything from processing movie graphics to searching for oil.
Just 18 months ago, China and India lacked a single system among the 25 fastest in the world. But in the latest list released on Monday of the 500 fastest computers, China nailed the No. 10 spot, standing as the only nation other than the US in the top 10. India, meanwhile, had the 13th-fastest machine, beating Japan, a longtime leader.
China now claims 15 of the world’s 500 fastest computers. That makes it the top-ranking supercomputing country outside the US, Western Europe and Japan.
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The presence of supercomputers in emerging nations like China and India says as much about those countries’ growing national ambitions as the changing state of science and business.
“These other countries are following behind the US and perhaps some other nations in Western Europe, but they are there,” said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee who helps maintain TOP500, the official list of the fastest supercomputers. “These countries are making a clear statement about their intentions.”
The vast majority of supercomputers are built by IBM and Hewlett-Packard. But China’s top system, located at the Shanghai Supercomputer Center, was assembled by the Chinese manufacturer Dawning. Like many of the fastest machines, the Shanghai system will handle research tasks, which remain the most important role for supercomputers. The ability of these machines to simulate experiments, explosions and the weather makes them crucial in an age when scientific discovery often takes place by manipulating large databases of information instead of running physical experiments.
“They are not buying these machines because they like to burn electricity and heat the air,” said Mark Seager, head of advanced computing at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “It’s for the simulation capabilities, which will be an important economic driver not just for the US, but for anyone else with two neurons to rub together.”
Still, the sharply falling cost of fast computers, which are often created by yoking together thousands of standard servers, makes them attractive to businesses for uses that would have been impractical even a few years ago.
For example, last year the Tata Group, an Indian conglomerate, invested US$35 million in a computing subsidiary that built what was then the fourth-fastest system in the world. Tata hopes to turn the machine into the basis of a profitable business with government contracts and work for researchers and companies in fields like nanotechnology, biology and electromagnetics. Tata’s computer is already being used to simulate aircraft designs for Boeing and render animated movies.
“We haven’t recovered our investment yet,” said Sunil Sherlekar, head of the Tata lab. “We don’t expect this to be hugely profitable in the short term, but we understand this is a long-term activity.”
For years, some of the fastest machines in China have belonged to The9, a video game developer that owns the local distribution rights to Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft franchise. Earlier this year, The9 boasted of hosting more than 1 million World of Warcraft players online at the same time. To support the complex calculations required to create the game’s graphics, The9 owns more than 10 supercomputer systems.
The list of China’s fastest computers is also filled with systems owned by oil and gas companies, financial firms, research groups and other media companies.
Of all the new entrants to the supercomputing race, China appears the most focused. The government has spent a vast amount of money building out its computing infrastructure, hoping to improve science and industry.
“If you look at China and what they are spending to get ahead, it’s clear this is a national priority,” said Douglas Comer, vice president of research at Cisco Systems. “They are definitely coming from behind, and they know that. They’re hungry.”
New Zealand is the leader in terms of computing capacity per capita, thanks to Weta Digital, a visual-effects company whose founders include the movie director Peter Jackson. Weta, based in the New Zealand capital, Wellington, operates four of the fastest machines on the planet for its work on film franchises like The Lord of the Rings and The Fantastic Four. Weta also rents out space on its systems to local research labs.
The idea of renting out space on big machines harks back to the early era of computing, when computers were so expensive that customers bought blocks of time on them for specific tasks. Today, a number of companies, like the high-speed computing specialist Cray and the graphics-chip maker Nvidia, are building beefy systems that can sit next to a desk and replicate some of the functions handled by room-sized machines. Nvidia, for example, has started selling deskside machines starting at US$10,000 that can process data 250 times faster than a regular PC.
The goal behind such computers is to provide scientists, engineers and artists with direct access to strong machines before they send larger jobs off to supercomputers.
And, of course, there remains a prominent place for machines that can cost more than US$100 million and take care of the US government’s most secret jobs. Currently, the fastest computer in the world is operated by Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which uses it to perform classified military work.
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