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Future computer

2014-05-04 08:46 Global Times Web Editor: Qin Dexing

Computers may have become an integral part of many people's daily lives in China, but supercomputing technology remains something of a niche, even though China is already a superpower in the field in terms of hardware.

China's Tianhe-2 retained the crown of fastest supercomputer on the planet, according to the most-recent bi-annual list of the world's 500 most powerful supercomputers, released by the Top500 project in November 2013. The list was compiled by Hans Meuer of the University of Mannheim, Erich Strohmaier and Horst Simon of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Jack Dongarra of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Tianhe-2, with a performance of 33.86 quadrillion operations per second, almost doubled the achievement of US-made Titan, which clocked a score of 17.59 quadrillion operations per second, making it the second-most powerful supercomputer.

In terms of share of the top 500 supercomputers globally, Chinese mainland claimed No.2 spot with 63 supercomputers on the list, while the US is home to 264 out of the top 500.

"The numbers have real value in terms of capturing the capacity of the supercomputers that China now has," José A.B. Fortes, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Florida, told the Global Times in an interview on April 24 during the 2014 ASC Student Supercomputer Challenge held in Guangzhou.

"For scientific applications, these numbers mean a lot, but for other applications - for instance, on transactions for financial purposes or artificial intelligence - they might not mean the same," said Fortes.

Application gap remains

Supercomputing, also known as high performance computing (HPC), is at the forefront of contemporary computational capacity, and has been gaining wider use in a variety of fields requiring intense computer power, such as weather forecasting and energy resources exploration.

However, in spite of its leading position in supercomputer hardware, China is not on the same level as other global powers in developing supercomputing applications, Wang Endong, senior vice president of IT service firm Inspur Group, told reporters on April 25 when the ASC Student Supercomputer Challenge concluded.

The challenge, jointly organized by the Asia Supercomputer Community, Sun Yat-sen University and Inspur Group, addressed concerns over the gap between China and other countries, especially the US, in nurturing HPC talents, according to Wang.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University won the challenge through their success in attaining the best scalability and performance optimization results for an advanced oil exploration application developed by the university.

The Tianhe-2 supercomputer should be used for more ordinary projects, Marek Michalewicz, senior director of the Computational Resource Center at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the main government-funded research agency in Singapore, said in an interview with the Global Times on April 24.

Michalewicz said he hoped activities like the ASC competition would help lead to greater interest in supercomputing among China's thousands of universities, as that could allow the technology to become more relevant for the economy and for society.

In-house technology

In addition to calling for increased attention to China's software and talent shortfall in supercomputing, Wang at Inspur told the Global Times that China has to make more efforts in developing a proprietary ecosystem and moving away from its dependence on supercomputer architecture that is currently dominated by the US.

Not everyone agrees, however, about what the country's priorities should be.

In the eyes of Fortes, China's push for its own in-house system might be one of the reasons behind a dearth of applications running on the system, as "there's a community of application developers that is very global," he said.

If it's not easy for all of the developers in the world to write programs that run on a particular system, the professor said, "then it's better to build something that is backward compatible with lots of applications."

The US still has the lead in terms of the total number of supercomputers, but China would be in a good position if it continued its efforts to develop viable homegrown technologies, Michalewicz at A*STAR said.

China has already equipped its supercomputers with viable domestic microprocessor architectures such as ShenWei and Loongson.

It would be better to have a rich choice of ecosystems in the high performance computing arena, although the extremely high expenditure that is required for supercomputing puts a limit on the amount of alternatives that can be seen, Michalewicz said.

Is it worth it?

Despite mixed views on China's efforts to push forward with its home-grown HPC technologies, few experts in the field have any doubts over the value of investment in the area.

In recent years, a growing number of supercomputer centers have been set up nationwide as part of the central government's pledge to advance the country's technological power.

The establishment of a supercomputer center requires investment of several hundred million yuan, but it's worthwhile, according to Wang.

It's important for any country to have an involvement in high performance computing, as it is part of keeping the country competitive, Fortes also noted.

Questions about the value of investment in supercomputing have also been raised in the US, according to Fortes. Such questions are always raised about putting large amounts of money into science projects, he said, but these investments are indispensable for advancing human technology.

Fortes said investment into supercomputing is not going to create wealth immediately, but "to the extent that supercomputing is truly an enabling science that's otherwise impossible, then it's a very important investment."

There's nothing wrong with the establishment of more supercomputer centers, Michalewicz also believes.

One way to fuel growth of the economy would be to build a wide variety of infrastructure projects, including the infrastructure for supercomputing applications, which would raise the country's technology levels and bring employment and economic advancement as well, Michalewicz noted.

But some have noted that investment plans regarding supercomputers have to be given careful consideration.

"Not every country can afford it. It's an expensive game unfortunately," Michalewicz said.

Fortes also cautioned against unrealistic expectations for quick returns, as supercomputing requires long-term investment into creating an entire ecosystem with resources and trained participants, as well as ideals that evolve and develop the use of the system.

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