How China Exascale Out-Techs the Competition

Learn how China has been able to out-tech the competition and achieve exascale performance.

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The China Exascale Advantage

While the united states and other Western countries have been lagging behind in the development of Exascale computing, China has been surges ahead. In June of 2018, China launched the world’s first Exascale supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight. What’s more, China is not alone in this development; they have been working with European partners to develop the technology.

China’s investment in exascale

China poured an estimated $2.1 billion into research and development (R&D) for supercomputing in 2016, more than any other country, and its investments are paying off. The nation now dominates the TOP500 list of the world’s fastest computers, with 202 systems, including the Sunway TaihuLight, which is about three times faster than the United States’ best system.

The Chinese government’s ambitious exascale computing initiative is a key driver of this progress. Launched in 2015, the goal of the initiative is to develop a prototype exascale supercomputer by 2020 and a deployed system by 2025—a timeline that experts say is aggressive but achievable.

If China meets its goals, it will be the first country to deploy an exascale system—a machine capable of a quintillion (1018) calculations per second. And experts say the country’s experience with building and deploying massive numbers of commodity systems at scale could give it an important edge in developing exascale hardware and software.

“I don’t think anybody has done large-scale deployments to the same extent that China has,” says Steve Oberlin, president and CEO of Cray, which is collaborating with Chinese researchers on an exascale system. “They have a lot of expertise in moving to very large deployments very quickly.”

That experience could come in handy as China looks to deploy not just one but possibly hundreds or even thousands of exascale systems over the next decade. The country has already said it plans to use its first deployed exascale system for weather forecasting, but experts say it is likely that other applications will follow quickly, including those related to national security.

The global competition

The global competition to develop the first exascale supercomputer is heating up. The United States, Europe, and Japan are all working on their own versions of an exascale system, but China is leading the way.

Why is China in the lead? Part of the reason is that they have more experience with large-scale supercomputing. They operate the world’s two largest supercomputers, the Sunway TaihuLight and Tianhe-2. But there are other factors at play as well.

One is that China has made a commitment to invest heavily in exascale research. They have poured billions of dollars into developing both hardware and software for an exascale system. This dedication has been paying off, as Chinese scientists have made significant progress in recent years.

Another advantage China has is a strong culture of collaboration. Scientists from different institutions and companies often work together on exascale research projects. This sharing of ideas speeds up the development process.

All of these factors have put China in a strong position to develop the first exascale supercomputer. And that could have major implications for the global economy.

The Technology

In June 2015, China announced it would have an operational exascale computer by 2020, five years ahead of the United States’ and Europe’s timeline. This achievement would represent a significant increase in Chinese high-performance computing (HPC) dominance and continue the country’s history of competitive innovation.

China’s exascale technology

China is racing to build the world’s first exascale supercomputer, a machine capable of a quintillion calculations per second. The U.S. is not far behind, with plans to deploy its own exascale system by 2023. But China is expected to beat the U.S. to the punch, due in part to its aggressive investment in hardware and software development, as well as its willingness to adopt new technologies more quickly.

Exascale supercomputers will be a thousand times more powerful than today’s machines, and will enable advances in scientific discovery, engineering design and artificial intelligence. They will also be much more energy efficient, due to their use of new processing architectures and artificial intelligence algorithms.

To achieve exascale performance, China is investing heavily in both hardware and software development. In 2015, the Chinese government announced plans to invest $250 million in exascale research and development over the next five years. And in 2017, it said it would invest an additional $30 billion in supercomputing by 2020.

These investments have already yielded results. In June 2018, China’s Sunway TaihuLight became the world’s most powerful supercomputer, with a peak performance of 93 petaflops (quadrillion floating-point operations per second). It was followed by two more Chinese systems — Tianhe-2A and Tianhe-2B — which are ranked second and third on the TOP500 list of supercomputers.

But building an exascale machine is not just about raw computing power; it also requires significant advances in software and algorithms. Creating an efficient system that can effectively utilize all that processing power is a challenge that has stumped even the most experienced supercomputing experts.

In addition to investing in hardware development, China is also working on creating new algorithms and software tools that can take advantage of exascale performance. In 2016, Chinese researchers announced they had developed an algorithm that achieved near-perfect accuracy for image recognition tasks on ImageNet, a large database of images used for research purposes. The algorithm was able to correctly classify more than 95 percent of the images it was tested on — a significant achievement at the time (and one that has since been surpassed by other algorithms).

The global competition

The global competition to develop the world’s first exascale computer is heating up. China has emerged as the clear front-runner, with its first exascale supercomputer due to come online in 2020. The United States and Japan are also racing to develop their own exascale machines, with both countries aiming to have their systems up and running by 2022. Europe is lagging behind, with no exascale machines expected to be operational before 2023 at the earliest.

China’s dominance in the field of supercomputing is no accident. The country has invested heavily in both hardware and software over the past decade, and its scientists have been at the forefront of research into exascale computing. As a result, China is now home to more than half of the world’s top 500 supercomputers, including the two most powerful machines in existence: Sunway TaihuLight and Tianhe-2.

While China may be leading the way in exascale computing, it is still far from clear that the country will be able to maintain its lead over the long term. The United States and Japan are both investing billions of dollars in their own exascale projects, and they are unlikely to give up without a fight. Europe, too, is slowly catching up, with several exascale projects currently underway.

In the end, it may come down to who can develop the most efficient software for running on exascale hardware. This is an area where China still lags behind its competitors, but if recent progress is any indication, it won’t be long before the country catches up.

The Future

The Cold War is over, and a new one is brewing. The 21st century will be defined by technology, and the country that controls the technology will control the world. China is already ahead of the United States in the race to develop exascale computing technology, which is a million times faster than today’s computers. China is also investing heavily in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, which could give them an even bigger lead in the future.

The impact of China’s exascale technology

The impact of China’s exascale technology is far-reaching. Not only does it have the potential to change the global balance of power, but it also has the potential to upend established business models and create new opportunities for Chinese companies.

China is not the only country pursuing exascale technology, but it is far ahead of its competitors. In 2015, China announced its intention to develop an exascale supercomputer by 2020—a goal that seemed impossible at the time. But with rapid advances in Chinese technology, that deadline now looks achievable.

What exactly is an exascale computer? It is a supercomputer that can perform one million trillion (10^18) calculations per second—a 1000-fold increase over current computers. Such a machine would be able to process vast amounts of data and solve complex problems that are beyond the capabilities of today’s computers.

The implications of China’s exascale technology are far-reaching. For one thing, it has the potential to change the global balance of power. With an exascale computer, China would have the ability to process vast amounts of data and out-compete other countries in terms of both economic and military power.

In addition, exascale technology has the potential to upend established business models. For example, many industries—such as weather forecasting, financial modeling, and drug discovery—rely on high-performance computing (HPC) for their operations. With an exascale machine, Chinese companies would be able to offer HPC services at a fraction of the cost of their overseas competitors. This would put them in a strong position to compete for HPC contracts from around the world.

Finally, exascale technology would create new opportunities for Chinese companies. For example, with an exascale machine, Chinese scientists would be able to develop new algorithms and software tools that could be commercialized and used by businesses in a variety of industries. In addition, Chinese companies would be well positioned to provide HPC services to other countries who are pursuing their own exascale programs

The global competition

As the U.S. falls behind China in the development of Exascale supercomputers, American companies and researchers are scrambling to catch up. But experts say it may already be too late.

“It is clear that China has taken the lead in Exascale development,” said Jack Dongarra, a University of Tennessee computer scientist who ranked the world’s fastest supercomputers for the last 35 years.

China now has the world’s two fastest machines, according to the most recent Top 500 list of supercomputers, released last month. And Chinese officials have said they expect to have an Exascale machine — a machine capable of a billion billion calculations per second — up and running by 2020. The United States, by comparison, isn’t expected to have an Exascale machine until 2021 at the earliest — and some experts say it could be 2025 before one is operational.

Once China has an Exascale computer, it will have a significant advantage over the United States in a number of areas, experts say. For one thing, Chinese scientists will be able to run much more complex simulations than their American counterparts — simulations that could be used to develop new drugs or design more efficient power plants. They will also be able to process large amounts of data much more quickly — data that could be used for everything from facial recognition to early detection of disease outbreaks.

But perhaps most importantly, China will have a leg up in the development of artificial intelligence. That’s because AI applications are very computationally intensive — and therefore require machines with enormous processing power like Exascale computers.

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