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Neena Kapur | The IT Ambassador

Chinese computing catches up

Published: Monday, November 26, 2012

Updated: Monday, November 26, 2012 07:11

 

When looking at China as a competitor to the United States, the same conclusion is reached in nearly every sector: The United States remains far in the lead, but China is catching up at a seemingly exponential pace.

High-performance computing is no exception to this pattern. While the United States sits upon its pedestal, making little progress in making its throne higher and more extravagant, China is rapidly catching up.

The TOP500 list, part of a project started in 1993, reports the top 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world on a semi-annual basis. As of recently, China has 72 systems on the list.  Though this number pales in comparison to the 250 machines that the United States boasts on the list, China still claims second place for most high-performance-computing (HPC) users in the world.

So, though a significant gap still exists, what are the chances that China will actually surpass the US in HPC development?

Answer: The chances are very high, if not entirely inevitable.

There are two important factors to consider when examining the reasons why Chinese HPC power is progressing so rapidly.

The first is the simple fact that the Chinese government provides immense funding for technological development and research, while the United States lacks this federal support. Though both the United States and China are actively working on similar HPC projects, China is making progress at a faster pace than the United States, partially because research there is not privatized, and because national support exists at large.

The term “techno-nationalism,” coined by The Economist, means the fostering of indigenous technological development and reducing dependence on foreign technologies. This mindset is one that is focused on developing technologies in order to achieve national goals, rather than internationally collaborating with other nations.Because of this sense of national urgency when developing HPC systems, the scale and speed at which China’s pedestal is rising is significantly higher than that of the United States.

The second important factor to look at is the idea of leapfrogging, a concept used to describe the ability of developing nations to bypass various technological stages that other countries have gone through. When looking at China, it is evident that its technology industry first stood upon the shoulders of pre-existing U.S. technologies. And, because of that initial help, China has now transformed into a much more self-sufficient HPC developer.

This can be seen when looking at China’s past technologies. The Tianhe-1A system, the world’s fastest supercomputer for some time, was built in 2010 and used U.S. chips and a Chinese-developed interconnection. Just two years later, the Sunway Bluelight supercomputer came into operation using its own Chinese-produced chip.

Pete Beckman, the director of Exascale Technology and Computing Institute, told Computerworld last week that “Now, you can see what’s going to happen. You take your homegrown CPU, the homegrown network, you put them together and you have a machine that is a technical achievement for China and is really competitive.”

In the realm of high-performance-computing, China is quickly rising to the top, while U.S. efforts are lagging. Though the US is currently the king of the technology sector — presiding proudly over other nations from its pedestal — times are changing, and it is clear that China is now competing for the throne. 

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 Neena Kapur is a sophomore majoring in international relations and computer science. She can be reached at Neena.Kapur@tufts.edu.

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