Magazine article National Defense

In Global Supercomputing Race, China Moves to Front of the Pack

Magazine article National Defense

In Global Supercomputing Race, China Moves to Front of the Pack

Article excerpt

The world of supercomputing is as competitive as an Olympic sport.

Nations develop new systems each year in hopes of seeing them climb the charts. Supercomputers are designed by mainstream companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard and have a deployable lifespan of a few years. They have names like Jaguar, Roadrunner and Intrepid, and can crack codes or predict the weather. One in the works in Illinois will help explain the cosmos, scientists say.

The predominant measurer of these machines today is the Top 500 list. It's all about speed--which supercomputer can do the most calculations in a second. Today, China owns the fastest machine. Tomorrow is another story.

Five of the 10 fastest supercomputers in 2005 came from the United States. Two more were built in Japan and one each in Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The latest list from November 2010 still puts five U.S. machines in the first 10 slots, but the other players have changed. The most notable newcomer is China. In addition to boasting the fastest computer in the world, the Chinese also have built another ranked third.

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The rankings are based on a system's performance while running the Linpack test, which measures floating point computation. Half of the machines on one year's list probably won't make it the following year. Still, after China displaced the United States from the top spot, observers began to describe the rush to build the speediest computer as an arms race.

Not so fast, the Obama administration said.

A month after China reached the peak of the Top 500 list, the president's science and technology council issued a report cautioning that a race to create the fastest system according to the Linpack benchmark could distract from more fruitful pursuits in high-performance computing, or HPC.

"The goal of our investment in HPC should be to solve computational problems that address our current national priorities, and this one-dimensional benchmark measures only one of the capabilities relevant to those priorities," the report said. "A single-minded focus on maintaining clear superiority in terms of flops count is probably not in our national interest."

Engaging in such an arms race may prove costly and divert resources away from basic research that could lead to breakthroughs allowing the United States to "leapfrog" other nations, the report said.

Supercomputers are built for more than just contests and rankings. They play a critical role in matters of science and national defense, said Thomas Sterling, a computer science professor at Louisiana State University best known for his part in developing the Beowulf class of computer clusters in the 1990s. Supercomputers are critical for engineering simulations that lead to the creation of state-of-the-art weapon systems like the stealth aircraft that is now being developed by the Chinese. They help the military develop complex battle simulations, control autonomous vehicles and figure out enemy communications, Sterling said.

That doesn't mean it's OK for the United States to fall behind in the speed-focused Top 500 list, he said.

Sterling respectfully disagrees with the president's team. He believes that the United States is involved in a "quiet but strategic" computing arms race. Backing off could undermine U.S. strategic goals, he said.

"This is exactly the wrong moment to tone it down," Sterling said. "This is a particularly dangerous time to be taking our foot off the accelerator. It's not just bragging rights. This is national security."

Instead of disparaging the metric used to determine the Top 500 list, the United States should be asking why it's no longer number one, he said. Though only a measure of one function, the poll is an indicator of each country's progress, he added. Others besides the United States have been at the top of the list before. …

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