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Supercomputer Development Thriving In China

Powerful systems for use in civil, military, and commercial applications are now being developed at no fewer than 10 locations in China.
After its best showing yet in the global supercomputing race, China is sending signals that it wants to expand its efforts to build the highly complex machines. But there’s a twist to this supercomputing tale -- engineers want to use home-grown technology for the core components.

Earlier this month, China nabbed the No.2 slot in global supercomputing. The system, which clocks in at 1.271 petaflops -- or 1,271 trillion calculations -- per second is second only to the U.S. Department of Energy's Jaguar in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (1.75 petaflops). Called Nebulae, it was created by a young band of Chinese engineers that are mostly in their 20s, according to Li Jun, president of Dawning, the company that owns the computer.

Bolstered by that success, officials are now saying they want to replace the Intel processors at the core of their supercomputers with those from a Beijing company called BLX IC Design Corp. The company is the maker of the Godson (aka Loongson) CPU, which is based on the MIPS instruction set and considered China’s best effort at designing a CPU to date. The super-fast systems, once mostly designed in Shanghai, are now being developed at no fewer than 10 locations around the country.

It’s likely that any system based on the Loongson wouldn’t match up to the Nebulae, but backers of the effort don’t think that matters. The systems would still be powerful enough to be used for high-level computing in civil, military, and commercial applications in China where the horsepower of the Nebulae would be overkill.

In the long run, Dawning is targeting its efforts at the general server market in China. The country is the third largest server market, after the US and Japan, but Dawning only captures a tiny sliver of sales on its home turf -- 5.7 percent last year, compared to Hewlett-Packard's 25 percent, Dell's 24 percent, and IBM's 21 percent, according to market researcher IDC.

But Dawning lacks the scale and widespread business relationships to make significant progress in the near term. It may be able to tout a low-cost product line, but so can its competitors, who use off-the-shelf parts and modular system configurations to compress cost.

Dawning recently said the Nebulae would be installed at the National Supercomputing Center in Shenzhen by the end of the year, where it will represent the largest ever investment in the city’s science and technology infrastructure. It will be used to solve problems in the fields of new energy development, new materials development, natural disaster analysis, geological exploration and urban planning.

Last year, the Chinese had the fifth fastest computer, based at a National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin. That system has now dropped to the seventh position this year.