Chinese Supercomputer Now the Fastest in the World

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After years of American dominance, China now hosts the fastest computer in the world. It's the first time a Chinese machine has held the title.

As Elizabeth Weingarten pointed out earlier today, the Tianhe-1A can execute 2.5 petaflops, or thousand trillion calculations per second. The fastest U.S. machine, the Jaguar XT-5, can only carry out 1.75 petaflops.

But there's something else that's interesting about the Tianhe-1A besides pure speed: it features impressive domestic interconnect technology. It uses Intel and Nvidia processors, but the system for allowing all 21,000 chips to communicate and work together is Chinese.

"This machine is a sign that we're going to see more machines like this," said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee who tracks the top supercomputers. That is to say, we're going to see faster Chinese computers that are built using more and more Chinese technology.

"We know the Chinese are developing processor technology and their hope is that they can replace not just the interconnects but also the processors with ones they make in their own country," Dongarra said.

This need not be seen as a bad thing. Certainly, American scientists and engineers can learn from their counterparts across the Pacific. But Dongarra also saw it as a challenge to the U.S. scientific establishment.

"It is a wake up call in the sense that the U.S. needs to make more of an investment in high-performance computing," he said. "If we're not dominant in that area, we're going to lose whatever advantages are conferred by that."

Supercomputers allow us to push the scientific edge. There are a wide variety of fields that depend on the astounding simulation capabilities of today's supercomputers. Dongarra, who just returned from China, said that the scientists who built the machine are planning to use it to study petroleum formations, biomedical research, and climate forecasting.

But it's worth noting that in the United States, these high-performance machines are primarily used to simulate nuclear weapons. It wouldn't be surprising if the Chinese computers are given that task, too.

The machine is located in China's National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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