Updated 7 months ago

Chinese supercomputer is the world's fastest

A Chinese supercomputer built using domestic chip technology has been declared the world's fastest. The news highlights China's recent advances in the creation of such systems, as well the country's waning reliance on US semiconductor technology.

The Sunway TaihuLight takes the top spot from previous record-holder Tianhe-2 (also located in China), and more than triples the latter's speed. The new number one is capable of performing some 93 quadrillion calculations per second (otherwise known as petaflops) and is roughly five times more powerful than the speediest US system, which is now ranked third worldwide.

The TaihuLight is comprised of some 41,000 chips, each with 260 processor cores. This makes for a total of 10.65 million cores, compared to the 560,000 cores in America's top machine. In terms of memory, it's relatively light on its feet, with just 1.3 petabytes used for the entire machine. (By comparison, the much less powerful 10-petaflop K supercomputer uses 1.4 petabytes of RAM.) This means it's unusually energy efficient, drawing just 15.3 megawatts of power — less than the 17.8 megawatts used by the 33-petaflop Tianhe-2.

More significantly than its specs, though, is the fact that the TaihuLight is built from Chinese semiconductors. "It’s not based on an existing architecture. They built it themselves," Jack Dongarra, a professor at the University of Tennessee and creator of the measurement system used to rank the world's supercomputers, told Bloomberg. "This is a system that has Chinese processors."

The previous fastest supercomputer, China's Tianhe-2, was built using US-made Intel processors. There were plans to upgrade the Tianhe-2's performance last year, but in April 2015 the US government placed an export ban on all high-performance computing chips to China. The Department of Commerce said that exporting such technology was "acting contrary" to American national security or foreign interests, and suggested that an earlier Chinese supercomputer — the Tianhe-1A — had been "used in nuclear explosive activities."

Supercomputers are thought by both the US and China to be integral for national security and scientific research. Such systems are used for a variety of tasks, including civilian work like climate forecasting and product design. However, they're also useful for more high-stakes research, including cybersecurity and nuclear weaponry. According to its creators, the TaihuLight will be used in the fields of manufacturing, life science, and earth system modeling.

China's investment in high-performance chips and supercomputers in recent years has been significant and effective. In 2001, there were no Chinese supercomputers in the world's top 500 ranking. Now, there are 167 — more than the US, which has 165 entries. The development of TaihuLight was funded under the so-called "863 program," a government project aimed at ending reliance on foreign technology.

The Verge |By James Vincent