Chinese supercomputer ranked top supercomputer

Move over U.S., China is on top, for now at least.

Chinese researchers at a national defense university in Tianjin unveiled the world’s fastest supercomputer, Tianhe-1A, reaching a top speed of 2.5 petaflops, or 2.5 quadrillion calculations per second, on Wednesday. That’s 40 percent faster than the former, Jaguar at Oakridge National Laboratories in Tennesseee.

The TOP500 list used to rank the supercomputers will formally display China at the No. 1 spot later this month, making it is the highest ranking China has achieved on the list.

Although the Chinese get the credit, a lot of the parts used on the Chinese Supercomputer are from the U.S. The supercomputer is powered by California-based chip maker NVIDIA.

The TOP500 list uses a benchmark of raw speed, called the LINPACK, which is made up of basic linear algebra and matrix equations. The supercomputer that can solve the problem the quickest, gets the enviable top spot.

The test is a gauge of peak performance and is not an adequate measure of practical computing ability, similar to a super car’s top speed performance compared to its practicality.

“The test is somewhat misleading,” said Marc Snir, a personal investigator for the petascale Blue Waters supercomputer and professor of computer science.

Even so, everyone vies for the top spot, Snir said.

The supercomputers deal with the most complex problems in a wide array of scientific areas, such as cosmology, climate change, geography, biology, chemistry, physics and research on physical consumer goods.

Blue Waters is a supercomputer in its developmental stages that will take over the top spot once it goes online. A collaboration between IBM, the University’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the Great Lakes Consortium for Petascale Supercomputing, Blue Waters will go online late 2011 and be fully deployed in 2012. It is expected to be the world’s fastest with a peak performance of 10 petaflops and a sustained performance of 1 petaflop running a range of science and engineering codes.

Snir said he is confident Blue Waters will hit the ground running as long as there is software to operate it. Since the machine is incredibly fast, IBM and university researchers have to develop software so scientists can get their work done. Trish Barker, spokeswoman for National Center for Supercomputing Applications, said progress is being made and Blue Waters will be ready for scientific crunching in no time.

“As soon as we turn the computer on, bang! (Scientists) are off and running and can be really productive,“ Barker said.

The recent accomplishment of the Chinese supercomputer is not a matter of national security, said Michael Heath, director of computational science and engineering.

“The Chinese computer may be a threat to our national pride, but I don’t see it as a threat to our national security. After all, almost all computer components are made in Asia these days anyway,” Heath added. “Fearing that some other country is going to have more powerful computers than we, is quite frankly more of an economic threat than a security threat. Computing has become a tool for industry and a tool for research.”

Barker said the news of the Chinese supercomputer is for the greater good of science.

“Science tends to transcend nations, crosses national boundaries. When science is advanced, it really helps us all,” she said.

China and science are progressing, Snir said.

“The fact that China is on top shows that China is investing very heavily in this area, like in many other areas of technology, to become the leader. They have the ability to be in the lead,” Snir said. “From a scientific standpoint, the more countries that develop supercomputers, the better it is.”