Why China's All-Powerful Supercomputer Matters

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Chinese scientists just won bragging rights for building the world's fastest supercomputer. A team at the National University of Defense Technology in Tianjin created the Tianhe-1A, an $88 million project that beat out—by a sizable margin—the previous record held by the Cray XT5 supercomputer in Tennessee. If you're not sure what this means, the following technology writers are here to help:

  • What Is a Supercomputer Anyway?  Stan Schroeder of Mashable explains: "Supercomputers, which essentially are many computers strung and networked together, fill entire rooms and even small warehouses. They are often used to processes huge amounts of scientific data. Climate models, for example, are run using the supercomputing power that's found in U.S. national labs."
  • What's So Great About This One?  Priya Ganapati at Wired explains: "The Tianhe-1A is interesting because it combines CPU [central processing unit] and GPUs [graphics processing units]— much like desktop PCs — to create the world’s most powerful machine. In fact, Nvidia, claims if its GPUs weren’t used, then it would have taken 50,000 CPUs and twice as much floor space to create a comparable computer."
  • What Is China Going to Do With It?  Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic explains:

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... 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.

  • Its Annual Electricity Bill Is $2.7 Million, writes Greg Tito at The Escapist magazine: "The sheer scale of this super-computer is staggering. The Tianhe-1A is housed in 103 cabinets that resemble large refrigerators. The entire computer weighs 155 tons and occupies an area of about 1,000 square meters. All of the computing power is supplied by 7,168 Nvidia Tesla M2050 graphics processor units (GPUs) and 14,336 Intel Xeon central processing units (CPUs). Using Nvidia chips instead of standard CPUs is more efficient, but its estimated annual electricity bill is still $2.7 million."
  • U.S. Still Dominates, writes Manikandan Raman at International Business Times:  "Of the world's fastest 500 supercomputers, the United States has 291, including the top 10, while Europe has 145 and Asia 49, according to the latest list."
China continues to increase the number of supercomputer systems on the Top500 list and is now tied with Germany at 24 for the No. 4 spot, after the U.S., U.K., and France, according to the Top500 Web site. "China also climbed with respect to overall installed performance and is now holding for the first time the No. 2 spot behind the USA and ahead of Germany," the site said.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.