The New York Times reports the announcement of a Chinese supercomputer built with domestically designed and manufactured chips. Although it runs at only 40% of the speed of the Intel- and Nvidia-based Tianhe-1A unveiled last year, its homegrown innards have surprised foreign observers.
The Sunway system, which can perform about 1,000 trillion calculations per second — a petaflop — will probably rank among the 20 fastest computers in the world. More significantly, it is composed of 8,700 ShenWei SW1600 microprocessors, designed at a Chinese computer institute and manufactured in Shanghai.
Currently, the Chinese are about three generations behind the state-of-art chip making technologies used by world leaders such as the United States, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
“This is a bit of a surprise,” said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee and a leader of the Top500 project, a list of the world’s fastest computers.
Last fall, another Chinese-based supercomputer, the Tianhe-1A, created an international sensation when it was briefly ranked as the world’s fastest, before it was displaced in the spring by a rival Japanese machine, the K Computer, designed by Fujitsu. [Another Chinese machine, Dawning Nebulae, had briefly taken the #2 spot that summer.] But the Tianhe was built from processor chips made by American companies, Intel and Nvidia, though its internal switching system was designed by Chinese engineers. Similarly, the K computer was based on Sparc chips, originally designed at Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley.
But the Tianhe-1A, critics say, was a mere lunge for the supercomputing crown, crunching numbers at a furious rate but to little practical purpose. “I am not saying it is utterly useless,” said one unnamed professor, providing Shanghaiist with its Quote of the Day. “It can play video games.” The machine’s value or lack of it was among the topics discussed in a recent three-part NPR series on China’s quest for a scientific renaissance (via CDT). See also the Financial Times piece from which the Tianhe quote comes, ‘Innovation: Autocratic directives fail to spark creativity‘.