A quick glance at the new ranking of top supercomputers reveals a surprising showing by one of the world’s technological powerhouses: Taiwan does not possess a single machine powerful enough to make the Top500.org list. While there are many nations that don’t make the list, Taiwan is peculiar in that it has such an outsized grip on the computer chip industry. What’s more, its political rival, China, not only has the world’s top machine, it now has more ranking supercomputers than any nation except the United States.
It has been a long decline. Taiwan’s most powerful supercomputer, the Advanced Large-scale Parallel Supercluster, also known as ALPS or Windrider, ranked 42nd in June 2011, shortly after its launch.
But the process of upgrading Taiwan’s supercomputing infrastructure has been slowed by ineffective government budget allocation. Since 2013, the National Center for High-performance Computing (NCHC), located in Hsinchu City, which operates Windrider, has failed twice to get enough of a budget boost to strengthen its supercomputing ability. While other countries poured money into the installation of powerful supercomputers as a way to show national power, Windrider fell to 303rd and then 445th in June 2014 and June 2015.
“If our three-year budget proposal is approved early [in 2016], Taiwan would gain a much better position on the Top 500 in 2018, when a 2-petaflops system is launched,” says Jyun-Hwei Tsai, deputy director general of NCHC. If such a system were launched today, it would rank 36th.
Officials at the Ministry of Science and Technology say they have prioritized supercomputing in their annual budget proposal—as they did in 2013 and in 2014. However, it’s really up to “the Cabinet,” the executive branch of the Taiwanese government.
Cabinet spokesman Sun Lih-chyun says the government fully understands the importance of supercomputing and points out that Taiwan has promoted cloud computing and big-data projects. “It remains uncertain when sufficient budget would be made available for new systems. We’re still reviewing the budget proposal. The decision has not yet been made,” Sun says.
“The Cabinet will make a final decision early [this] year,” adds Tzong-Chyuan Chen, director general of the Department of Foresight and Innovation Policies under the ministry. “In economic recession years, it’s difficult to gain budget for important science and technology projects with long-term impacts, which are not yet felt.”
It wasn’t always like this. In June 2002, an IBM system at the NCHC center ranked 60th. In June 2007, the center’s newest system, called Iris, ranked 35th.
Iris’s place on the list wasn’t long-lived. It was displaced by November 2009 due to a boom in supercomputer installations in many other countries, such as China. The huge increase in China’s supercomputing power in recent years can be attributed in part to some government-backed companies, such as Sugon Information Industry Co. and Inspur Group Co., which together manufactured 64 of the ranked systems.
According to NCHC’s Tsai, the big strides taken by other countries is a sore point in Taiwan. “We don’t compare ourselves with big countries, such as China, Japan, and the United States. What frustrates us more is that, in South Korea, the momentum of national supercomputing is now stronger than ours,” he says. Currently, South Korea’s two fastest systems rank 29th and 30th.
It’s not as if there isn’t much demand for supercomputing in Taiwan. Currently, Taiwan’s Windrider utilization exceeds 80 percent. “It’s like a crowded superhighway. And we’ve heard complaints from some users,” Tsai says.
According to Tsai, Windrider is most significantly used in basic physics, chemistry, and biomedical imaging. But certain key fields get prioritized access. Those include environmental studies, climate change, and natural disasters.
“Taiwan is prone to natural disasters, such as typhoons, floods, and earthquakes. A powerful database, backed by powerful supercomputing systems, is essential for conducting better predictions of typhoons,” Tsai says.
Due to the limitations of Taiwan’s supercomputing capability, some scientists have taken to building their own computer clusters and speeding up existing resources with graphics processing unit-based accelerators.
Tzihong Chiueh, a theoretical astrophysicist at National Taiwan University, in Taipei, says he and his colleagues there have not relied on NCHC’s system for years. Chiueh, whose team has since 2013 been taking advantage of a self-built system that can reach tens of teraflops, says, “The investment [in a petaflops-scale system] should indeed be prioritized. I hope it can work at least 10 times faster than the current system.”
This article originally appeared in print as “Has Taiwan Given Up on Supercomputing?.”
A correction to this article was made on 4 January 2016.