Chips with full IPR play key role in China’s supercomputer war with US

By Zhao Juecheng Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/9 19:08:40

Chinese developed supercomputer Sunway-TaihuLight operates at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, East China's Jiangsu Province. Photo: IC

A Chinese team is using domestically developed technology to build a next-generation computer that will compete with the US, Japan and the European Union for speed records.

Researchers are competing aggressively to develop exascale supercomputers, capable of a billion billion calculations per second.

Journalists from the Global Times recently visited Jinan, East China's Shandong Province, to see the Sunway exascale supercomputer prototype. This computer is not the fastest in China, but is special because it was built entirely with domestic technology. All of the intellectual property used in the computer is owned by China.

Black and embossed with the gold words "Sunway Exascale supercomputer prototype," the cabinet is as tall as a man and stands in a low-temperature but noisy computer room. Its appearance is not distinguished. Only if visitors opened the door could they have a glimpse of the 32 supernodes inside. Each consists of eight multicore processors, the heart of the prototype.

The new prototype of the Sunway supercomputer, in comparison to the previous generation Sunway BlueLight, is one ninth the physical size, and computes three times faster, at 3,000 trillion times a second.

Although it cannot compete with the fastest full-fledged supercomputer TaihuLight, which operates 30 times faster, this prototype has been made using independent research and development. 

"There are independent property rights for the processors, Ethernet switching chips and information processing chips," said Zhang Yunquan, director of National Supercomputer Center in Jinan.

"The computing system, high-speed network, and storage management system are all constructed with domestic Sunway devices," Zhang said. Sunway microchips are made by Wuxi-based Jiangnan Computing Lab.

Domestic competition

China started developing exascale supercomputers in 2016 at three different institutes. Exascale computing refers to computing systems capable of at least a billion billion calculations per second. A prototype co-developed by the national supercomputer center in Tianjin and the National University of Defense Technology was completed on July 22. The prototype in Jinan was completed on August 5. The third prototype undertaken by Beijing-based supercomputer maker Sugon is still in progress.

"These prototypes are the first step of China's exascale supercomputing strategy. The three prototype makers will compete against each other. Two will be chosen to create full-version exascale supercomputers," Pan Jingshan, deputy director of the Jinan center, told Global Times. "The real Sunway exascale supercomputer will be released in 2020 according to the plan."

The three competing prototypes use different technology. Sugon uses X86 processors, an approach that Pan says faces significant technical difficulties.

The Tianjin prototype named Tianhe-3 is equipped with an FT 2000+ processor and Matrix 200+ accelerator. The two parts can operate separately or in collaboration.

The Sunway prototype in Jinan adopted a cohesive structure using a Sunway 26010+ processor, four major cores and 256 secondary cores.

"This system is more integrated and energy-efficient, but the challenge lies in parallel programming," Zhang told the Global Times.

"It is estimated by industry insiders that such a major-minor structure might be most suitable for exascale supercomputers," Zhang said.

Too close to call

As the US regained the crown of fastest supercomputer from China this June, the white-hot competition will continue in exascale supercomputers.

Aurora A21, the first US exascale supercomputing system, located in Argonne National Laboratory, is expected to debut in 2021. Two other systems with different structures are under development in Oak Ridge and at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Japan based its exascale supercomputer Post-K on the current K Computer, the world speed champion in 2011. However, project leader Yutaka Ishikawa admitted the original delivery time 2020 may be delayed by one to two years, reported HPCwire. 

The European Union has been using US technology in their supercomputers, therefore their research is not making substantial progress, Zhang told Global Times.

"China is definitely on the forefront of exascale supercomputers according to our timeframe," Zhang said. "But China and the US are likely to take the lead alternately in the next decade."

In addition to the great amount of money used for research, each supercomputer receives an electric bill over $15 million a year. Considering the cost, how are supercomputers benefiting common people?

"Our strategy is sky-to-ground, taking both national strategy and civilian use into account," Zhang explained.

The supercomputer located in coastal Shandong Province will facilitate China becoming a world maritime power.

The Sunway exascale supercomputer will support ocean and climate prediction, screening of marine drugs, exploration of seabed strategic resources, prediction of marine ecosystem evolution, and intelligent analysis of big sets of marine data. 

The supercomputer will also provide a computing platform for fields including health care, advanced manufacturing, aerospace, climate and meteorology.

Global Times

Newspaper headline: Breaking the speed barrier

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