In June, we can look forward to two things: the Belmont Stakes and the first of the twice-yearly TOP500 rankings of supercomputers. This month, a well-known gray and black colt named Tapwrit came in first at Belmont, and a well-known gray and black supercomputer named Sunway TaihuLight came in first on June’s TOP500 list, released today in conjunction with the opening session of the ISC High Performance conference in Frankfurt. Neither was a great surprise.
Tapwrit was the second favorite at Belmont, and Sunway TaihuLight was the clear pick for the number-one position on TOP500 list, it having enjoyed that first-place ranking since June of 2016 when it beat out another Chinese supercomputer, Tianhe-2. The TaihuLight, capable of some 93 petaflops in this year’s benchmark tests, was designed by the National Research Center of Parallel Computer Engineering & Technology (NRCPC) and is located at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, China. Tianhe-2, capable of almost 34 petaflops, was developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), is deployed at the National Supercomputer Center in Guangzho, and still enjoys the number-two position on the list.
More of a surprise, and perhaps more of a disappointment for some, is that the highest-ranking U.S. contender, the Department of Energy’s Titan supercomputer (17.6 petaflops) housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was edged out of the third position by an upgraded Swiss supercomputer called Piz Daint (19.6 petaflops), installed at the Swiss National Supercomputing Center, part of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.
Not since 1996 has a U.S. supercomputer not made it into one of the first three slots on the TOP500 list. But before we go too far in lamenting the sunset of U.S. supercomputing prowess, we should pause for a moment to consider that the computer that bumped it from the number-three position was built by Cray and is stuffed with Intel processors and NVIDIA GPUs, all the creations of U.S. companies.
Even the second-ranking Tianhe-2 is based on Intel processors and co-processors. It’s only the TaihuLight that is truly a Chinese machine, being based on the SW26010, a 260-core processor designed by the National High Performance Integrated Circuit Design Center in Shanghai. And U.S. supercomputers hold five of the 10 highest ranking positions on the new TOPS500 list.
Still, national rivalries seem to have locked the United States into a supercomputer arms race with China, with both nations vying to be the first to reach the exascale threshold—that is, to have a computer that can perform a 1018 floating-point operations per second. China hopes to do so by amassing largely conventional hardware and is slated to have a prototype system ready around the end of this year. The United States, on the other hand, is looking to tackle the problems that come with scaling to that level using novel approaches, which require more research before even a prototype machine can be built. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it was awarding Advanced Micro Devices, Cray, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Intel, and NVIDIA US $258 million to support research toward building an exascale supercomputer. Who will get there first, is, of course, up for grabs. But one thing’s for sure: It’ll be a horse race worth watching.
David Schneider is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His beat focuses on computing, and he contributes frequently to Spectrum's Hands On column. He holds a bachelor's degree in geology from Yale, a master's in engineering from UC Berkeley, and a doctorate in geology from Columbia.