Today saw China unveil the world’s most powerful supercomputer. Following the U.S. Governments decision in 2015 to keep China away from Intel’s fastest microprocessors, China’s National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi decided to build the Sunway TaihuLight built solely with Chinese made microprocessors, 10.65 million cores worth of microprocessors.

China Unveiled The World's Fastest Supercomputer

Stunt or functioning supercomputer

There is little question that China has for decades been looking to make a splash with nearly everything thing they do. Whether it’s the tallest building (even if short-lived), highest train (Lhasa/Tibet), longest bridge, fastest magnetic train, or most medals at the Olympics following a jaw-dropping opening ceremony. Mao had banned boxing in the nation, but given this medal quest and the rules of amateur boxing, this was repealed after more than five decades and Chinese boxers were trained to come in fast, score points and run away. While it didn’t resemble boxing, the medals were undeniable. Now that I think of that wall, this has been going on a bit longer than the last few decades of the “Middle Kingdom” opening up to the world.

Jack Dongarra, a professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee and one of the leaders of the Top500 supercomputing list quickly pointed out that this is no stunt calling the TaihuLight “very impressive.” China has long been reliant on U.S. microprocessors, it’s now second fastest system the Tianhe-2 uses Intel Xeon processors clocks in at 54.9 petaflops. That has been more than doubled with TaihuLight which is the first supercomputer to surpass the 100 petaflop mark and does so by going to 124.5 petaflops. The system is comprised of ShenWei CPUs manufactured by Jiangnan Computing Research Lab in Wuxi

A petaflop is a quadrillion floating-point operations per second. A quadrillion is one thousand trillion.

Suffice is to say, that’s really fast and is already running “sizable applications” according to Dungary. It’s no surprise that China was working on building a 100+ petaflop supercomputer but many were surprised that the United States blocked Intel from selling its fastest microprocessors to China for perceived use to the Tianhe-2 system for nuclear testing activities. That was at least the cover story, but many believed that is was simply done to slow the country’s supercomputing efforts. Surely, Donald Trump would be promising to do the same thing if his average supporter new what a microprocessor was, so it’s not been much of a talking point.

Cementing these critics belief that this was simply done to slow China’s supercomputing efforts, the very next month Obama issued an executive order declaring a “national strategic computing initiative” hoping to continue the United States “economic leadership position” in supercomputing.

China is not alone

Both Japan and Russia have their own designs on super fast supercomputers, while and European countries and firms have turned to British made ARM processors to build their own massive supercomputing systems. China not only has the fastest supercomputer but more on the Top500 list than the U.S according to Dongarra. “China has 167 systems on the June 2016 Top500 list compared to 165 systems in the U.S,” he said, in an email to ComputerWorld. That number is quite staggering when just ten years ago, China had one for each of those same ten years.

In an aggregate petaflop count of those on the last list China comes in at 211 petaflops with the U.S. trailing with 173 petaflops. It should be noted that the U.S. number does not include what are being used by the NSA, the CIA and other intelligence agencies, which would surely see the United States at the top of the list.

“This is the first time the U.S. has lost the lead,” said Dongarra referring to the Top500 list.

Additionally, the United States has announced its ambitions to build an exascale system by 2023, China plans to have its finished three years ahead of that in 2020.

The United States fastest supercomputer which is number three on the list belongs to the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It’s called Titan and was built by Cray to reach a (theoretical) clock speed of  27 petaflops.

Many believe that the ban on Intel produced the opposite of the desired goal by making China more determined to show the world what it could do with its own chips.

Supercomputing or High-performance Computing (HPC) was once the domain of national security and big science research, it’s now an integral part of the economy with big data analysis, fraud detection as well as smaller scale manufacturing relying on the power of supercomputers.

It’s for this reason that China has been working so hard to make itself independent of foreign chips and it appears to be working.