In late October 2011, the Sunway BlueLight MPP made headlines as China's first high-performance computer to harness the power of a homegrown chip, the ShenWei SW1600. And the Dawning 6000, scheduled to come on line in December 2011, will use another indigenous processor, the Godson-3B. These are supercomputers that China can truly call its own.
At press time, engineers were busy optimizing the Dawning 6000's ability to run Linpack—the benchmark software library used to rank computers in the Top500 list. The Sunway BlueLight, a petaflops-level supercomputer, has already been put through its Linpack paces and claimed 14th place in the November Top500 ranking. But don't be fooled: Neither machine is a speed demon. Consider them rather as steps toward technological independence.
"The Dawning 6000 is really trying to master the tricks of this domain so that the Chinese have the ability to develop their own chips, their own IT from the ground up," says IEEE Fellow Tarek El-Ghazawi, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at George Washington University and a codirector of the NSF Center for High-Performance Reconfigurable Computing. Given that today's exotic supercomputer components are tomorrow's quotidian hardware for personal computers, El-Ghazawi predicts that these research projects will prove a boon for Chinese commercial chips, which he expects to become widespread in China's marketplace in around 10 years. "Then, in the next 20 years," he says, "they may be selling chips to the world, including the U.S."
That would be a swapping of roles. The Dawning 5000 line, released in 2008, relied on U.S.-made AMD Opteron CPUs. And even China's Tianhe-1A, for a few months the world's top-ranked supercomputer, owed a good part of its 2.57-petaflops performance to Western chips—a total of 7168 Nvidia Tesla GPUs complemented by 14 396 Intel Xeon CPUs.
"The Tianhe was opportunistic," El-Ghazawi says. "They looked at the top-performing chips out there and applied them. With Dawning, from the ground up, they are building a machine with careful consideration to each level of the architecture—chip, node, and system—with the requirements of the software in the back of their minds."
The Tianhe-1A did not sacrifice all innovation in the race for the top. The machine was also celebrated for its indigenous interconnect system, the channels for shuttling information between computer nodes. The interconnect system, called Arch, was developed by China's National University of Defense Technology. Capable of 160 gigabytes per second, Arch had greater bandwidth than commercially available alternatives, such as InfiniBand.
"If you're developing your own supercomputer, you would have to build both your own processors and interconnect to connect them together," says Jack Dongarra, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Tennessee who helps to compile the Top500 ranking. "I would guess that the Chinese would want to move toward a system that they have developed themselves....They want to be in a position where they can develop an industry that can generate computers for China and the rest of the world rather than relying on Western components."