Did you feel that? That was the supercomputing world lurching eastward. In the last accounting of the world's 500 fastest machines, China surprised everyone by taking the top spot. It's gone from having 3 in the top 500 at the beginning of the decade to 41, besting historic processing princes Germany and Japan.
China is still far behind the consistent computational king, the United States, which has historically commanded about half the list. But world-class supercomputing prowess—or at least the bragging rights to it conferred by the Top 500 list—is more a question of quality than of quantity.
Add up the processing potential of all 500 top supercomputers and you get an almost unfathomable 43 673 000 billion floating-point operations per second (43 673 teraflops). But it's the cream of the crop that make all the difference. By themselves, the top 10 computers provide 28 percent of the list's teraflops, and you need only the top 45 machines to account for half. China's big break came not by doubling its presence on the list but by building one really powerful computer at its apex. The Tianhe-1A system at the National Supercomputer Center, in Tianjin, boasts a performance of 2570 teraflops—about 6 percent of the list's total.
Another reckoning of the supercomputer universe is due in June. Watch for new high-ranking entrants from Japan, the United States—and China.
Samuel K. Moore is the senior editor at IEEE Spectrum in charge of semiconductors coverage in the magazine and on the website. He began at Spectrum in 2000 and has written about a range of topics including strange semiconductors, stimulators for psychiatric treatment, and the robotization of biotechnology. An IEEE member, he has a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Brown University and a master’s degree in journalism from New York University.