China's Supercomputer Prowess Is Part of a Greater Plan

China has the world’s fastest computer and has broader plans yet

When the Top500 organisation recently released its semi-annual list of the fastest supercomputers in the world, the Chinese Tianhe-2 (MilkyWay-2) supercomputer topped the list for the third time. Many Westerners wondered how a nation which was for so long technologically behind the West could achieve this. After all, most experts think the US will not have a comparable system until around 2016, when the US Department of Energy is expected to build a supercomputer called Trinity.

The Tianhe-2 has been installed at the National University of Defence Technology and it can manage 33.86 petaflop/s (quadrillions of calculations per second). That is nearly twice the speed of the second-fasted computer, a Cray supercomputer installed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a science and technology lab managed for the US Department of Energy by the University of Tennessee. The Chinese had beaten the best computers that HP, IBM and Cray could build.

Horst Simon, Deputy Laboratory Director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Wired that the creation of the Tianhe-2 was proof that the West was not spending enough developing its supercomputers. China's total annual R&D expenditure exceeds $163bn. Since 2008, it has maintained 18% year-on-year increases in research spending, in a period when the effects of the global financial crisis have seen investment flat-line or fall in other countries, Simon said.

However, that statement does not tally with IDC’s figures for supercomputing. Earl Joseph, programme vice president for technical computing at IDC, said that sales of high-end supercomputers shot up 30% to be worth $5.6bn in 2012, just as China was building its latest machines.

IDC noted at the time there was also an increase in higher-capacity systems (HPS) which fall short of the 'supercomputer' classification but still provide serious processing capacity.

What this indicates is that Western companies were investing in supercomputers and HPC but not Tianhe-2 style arrays.

The Tianhe-2 is based around 32,000 Intel Ivy Bridge Xeon sockets and 48,000 Intel Xeon Phi boards making 3,120,000 cores.

Professor Jack Dongarra, of the University of Tennessee, one of the few westerners to have seen the array, said that while the TH-2 system is based on US equipment, there were a number of features of the TH-2 that are Chinese in origin, which suggests the goal was to develop local technology in the long term.

This included the TH-Express 2 interconnection network, the Galaxy FT-1500 16-core processor, the OpenMC programming model, a high-density package, and some secret sauce to make the system more reliable and scalable. The operating system was a home-grown version of Linux. Dongarra said the Chinese had made a sustained investment in supercomputers over the last few years and this has taken them from having zero supercomputers on the Top500 list in 2001 to the number-two position behind the US.

What appears to be developing behind the scenes is the evolution of other technology including a range of Chinese chips.

“The Chinese processors in the Tainhe-2 are not used for the main supercomputer processing, but the Chinese have developed a processor that is the #46 computer on the Top500. That’s the ShenWei SW1600, a 16-core, 975GHz processor,” Dongarra said.

The ShenWei series of microprocessors was developed primarily for the use of the Chinese military. The original microarchitecture was “inspired” by Digital’s Alpha processor and the current third-generation chip is already in the Sunway BlueLight MPP Supercomputer.

Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom thinks the West and China have different methodologies. If the West gets caught up in the engineering of a project it pushes up the cost, particularly for publicly-quoted commercial companies who need to commercialise their work broadly, he argued. 

“In China this is not a problem. You can design a computer based on raw power for the specific workload, and then just throw resources at it,” Longbottom said.

It does not matter if the supercomputer takes up the same amount of space as a Boeing factory if it all works and can perform its set tasks.  


“The Chinese have always been excellent at reverse engineering, which is a politer way of saying bypassing copyright,” he said.

Longbottom thinks that the way that the Chinese are working is based on a socialist version of the Japanese economic miracle. Japan became the electronics leader by learning the “Copy, learn, innovate” mantra and China is at the third stage, Longbottom said.


Nick Farrell is a freelance writer who was born in New Zealand and recently migrated from Bulgaria to Italy. He writes widely on technology, magic and the esoteric.