China's Claims World's Fastest Supercomputer

A new supercomputer built in China is apparently the world's fastest. The system was designed at a defense technology university in the city of Tianjin. It's not quite homegrown since it runs on Linux and uses chips from American companies in Silicon Valley. Still, China's supercomputer breakthrough is likely to trigger some soul-searching in the U-S. Is America's big technology advantage over China rapidly shrinking?

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The world's biggest, fastest supercomputer is now in China. The new computer, unveiled today, takes the top spot away from an American computer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES: Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, keeps an up-to-date list of the world's 500 most powerful computers. He'd been hearing reports that China's National Supercomputing Center was about to get a big new machine. So last week, when he was in Beijing for a conference, he decided to find out for sure.

Mr. JACK DONGARRA (Computer Scientist, University of Tennessee): I sort of asked if it would be possible to make a visit to the computing center.

CHARLES: It was. He saw rows of cabinets filled with 20,000 smaller computers all linked together. The new supercomputer covered more than a third of an acre.

Dongarra was surprised by two things: first, the computer's power. It can carry out two and a half thousand trillion operations per second, 40 percent more than any other supercomputer on earth. And second, unlike previous Chinese supercomputers, it wasn't just built with Western components.

Modern supercomputers are made from thousands of individual processors, and in China's new champion machine, those are made in America. But Chinese scientists built the switches that connect those computer chips.

Mr. DONGARRA: And the connection's critical because the faster you make the interconnect, the better your overall computation will flow.

CHARLES: Now, beating the previous record-holder by 40 percent may seem impressive, but the new supercomputer may not stay on top for long. Dongarra says he knows of five supercomputers now being built that are supposed to be four times more powerful than China's new machine. Three are in the U.S.; two are in Japan.

Supercomputers are unleashed on really complicated problems like forecasting the weather or simulating our planet's future climate. And Dongarra says to do those jobs, the sheer power of a fast machine isn't nearly enough.

Mr. DONGARRA: The more challenging thing is being able to effectively use these machines.

CHARLES: That's a programming challenge: writing computer software that will manage a supercomputer's thousands of individual processors to work together efficiently.

Dongarra says he has no idea how well the Chinese are doing with that part of the supercomputing challenge. Unlike the hardware race, the accomplishments of computer software are not easily measured.

Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: