China leapfrogs US in supercomputer deployments

China has more than twice the number of supercomputers than the US, and it is finding a ready market for its Lenovo supercomputers among US tech companies in Ireland, the latest top 500 supercomputer list reveals

According to the November 2018 half yearly assessment of the world’s top 500 supercomputers by TOP500, China has increased its domestic supercomputer installations to more than double those of the US, with 227 installations in China against 109 in the US.

More importantly, China has hugely increased the sale of its mass-produced Lenovo supercomputers around the world, often to American companies outside the US.

The UK has four of the Chinese devices, and there are 12 Chinese Lenovo machines installed across the Irish Sea – an increase of more than 40% on Ireland’s seven machines registered in June 2018. This pushes Ireland to seventh in the league of the world’s top 500 supercomputer countries.

The UK is number four, with 20 supercomputers up and running, two less than in June.

The race to Exaflops

China’s lead supercomputer scientist, Depei Qian, recently set out the goals for the first Chinese exaflop – a billion, billion floating point operations per second (Flops) – machines of which 3 prototypes, the Sugon, Tianhe and Sunway, are now in place and expected to be on stream in 2020 or 2021.

The US has only one such machine in build on the grid, which is the current Department of Energy machine at Oak Ridge.

Once running, these machines – Chinese or American – will be the largest and most complex devices ever built by human beings, executing a billion, billion Flops. According to the US commentator Michael Feldman, “they will change the face of supercomputing forever”, and a few other things too. 

China’s domestic collection of 227 devices, which is a increase of 20 machines in the Chinese domestic distribution. The US’s 109 machines is a fall of 15 machines in the TOP500 list in the US in the past six months. However, the US still heads the speed list with its huge IBM Summit machine at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, followed by another IBM machine at the US Department of Energy. 

But China is still competing at the top, with a Sunway at the National Supercomputing Centre at Wuxi (number three in the list), and the Tianhe-2a at the other Chinese national computing centre at Guangzhou in the number 4 slot.

Europe gets a peek in with Switzerland’s US-built Cray XC 50, ranking number five in the world, at the Swiss National Computing Centre. This is the highest-placed device in Europe, but it is of US manufacture. At number eight in Germany at the Leipzig research Centre is a Chinese Lenovo machine, a Super MUC-NG. Japan has just one machine in the top 10, a Fujitsu ABC1.

China supercomputer growth defies US chip ban

What links the Irish and UK Lenovo machines is that they are all installed at software companies. Most, if not all, of Ireland’s software companies large enough to pay €20m or €30m for a supercomputer are American.

The explosive growth in Chinese supercomputers across the world is despite a US ban on Intel selling Xenon supercomputer chips to China in 2015. One of Depei Quian’s remarks was that all three Chinese exaflop machines would be “self controlled”, meaning they are based on internally supplied Chinese chips and not on imports.

The list is voluntary. Russia, while attending international supercomputer conferences since 1991, has never listed most of its own supercomputers, with only three machines on the list.

Israel, which is reckoned to have the same number of machines as the UK, has never submitted its supercomputer sites to the TOP500 list. Some 10 years ago, China had just 15 machines on the list and the US has 291. Just 20 years ago, in 1998, China had no machines at all on the list.

The top 10 super countries in the world, by installed machines

  1. China – 227
  2. US – 109
  3. Japan – 31
  4. UK – 20
  5. France – 18
  6. Germany – 17
  7. Ireland – 12
  8. Canada – 9
  9. Italy – 6
  10. South Korea – 6

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