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China's secretive super-fast chip powers the world's fastest computer

Agam Shah | June 21, 2016
China sends a warning to Intel: We can develop blazing fast chips, too.

Fifteen years ago, China decided to build homegrown processors for PCs, servers, and supercomputers. Now the country's latest chip is powering the world's fastest computer.

The Sunway TaihuLight at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, China, was ranked as the world's fastest supercomputer on a Top500 list published on Monday. It runs on a homegrown ShenWei processor and is capable of 93 petaflops (million billion floating point operations per second) of sustained performance. Its peak performance can reach 125.4 petaflops.

The supercomputer is a big statement that China doesn't have to rely on U.S. technology for its IT needs. China used Intel's chips to build the world's second fastest supercomputer, the Tianhe-2, which until recently held the top spot on the Top500 list.

The U.S. in April last year banned the export of some Intel Xeon chips to China for use in supercomputers, with the government concerned the chips would be used in activities against U.S. interests. The Tianhe-2 and Tianhe-1A were allegedly used in nuclear weapon tests, which partly spurred the export ban.

The embargo on the Xeon chips did not affect the building of the Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer. China already had set its sights on building the first supercomputer that could deliver a performance of more than 100 petaflops, Top500 wrote.

But the embargo did strengthen the resolve and precipitated efforts of China to build its own homegrown chips.

For the Chinese, the development of indigenous IT equipment, especially for high-performance computing, is a matter of priority and national pride, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

"They are trying to show their moxie here, and they are doing a pretty good job," Brookwood said.

Developing a high-tech chip gives China bragging rights to stand up against countries and top chip-makers like Intel. It's also a matter of cost, Brookwood said.

"China spends more on IT equipment than oil," Brookwood said.

The home-grown Chinese chip also gives the country some weight and bargaining power against top chip makers Intel, IBM, and Qualcomm, who are trying to push their own chips to server makers in China.

The ShenWei processor may not make it to servers used in data centers, but may be a bargaining chip for China to use against companies like Intel and Qualcomm to make concessions as a way to gain business in the country.

A supercomputer with a homegrown Chinese chip, the Sunway BlueLight MPP, running an early version of the ShenWei processor, entered the Top500 list in November 2011 at number 14. It was the first Chinese supercomputer with a homegrown chip to enter the Top500 list and was ranked at 119 on the list released on Monday.

 

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