China has the fastest supercomputer, but the U.S. still rules

China continues to hold the top spot in the Top 500 supercomputer list, but the U.S. still dominates, with 90% of the systems on the list made by U.S. vendors.


More powerful supercomputers enable higher resolutions for modeling and simulations, more complex science, and the possibility of breakthrough discoveries. It's one reason why the biannual Top 500 supercomputer list is carefully watched. Computing power matters in this universe.

China continues to lead this benchmark list, and its Tianhe-2 system, a 33.86 Pflop/s (quadrillions of calculations per second), was cited last week as the world's most powerful system. It has held this distinction for a year.

The Tianhe-2 was built by China's National University of Defense in collaboration with the Chinese IT company Inspur. The supercomputer uses Intel processors, but China has created its own chips and has started building large systems with entirely homegrown products.

China is getting a lot of attention, and rightfully so, for its supercomputing efforts, but the U.S. remains the leader in producing supercomputers.

About 90% of all the systems on the Top 500 are made by U.S. vendors, including 65 of the 76 Chinese supercomputers that were included in the most recent list, according to Steve Conway, an analyst at IDC, citing data from the list.

Indeed, Hewlett-Packard accounted for 182 systems on this list, or more than 36%, followed by IBM with 176, or 35%. Cray is responsible for 50 or 10% of the global total, followed by SGI at 19, and Dell at eight.

In total, these U.S. vendors account for 435 of the 500 systems. A few one-off systems by small vendors add several more to this total.

Global competition is increasing, however, and the manufacturing lead now held by the U.S. is not assured. Japan and Europe, as a well as China, are all stepping up high-performance computing investments to challenge, in part, U.S. dominance in broader technology markets.

In last month's release of the Top 500, the U.S., in total, accounted for 233 systems on the list, falling below 50% for the first time. Conway said that is a consequence of China's push. It has "captured places on the list that otherwise would have gone to the U.S. or other countries," he said.

Earl Joseph, an analyst at IDC, said that "the U.S. has lost ground mostly due to other nations investing more, not as much from a reduction in U.S. spending as much as a lack of growth."

Jack Dongarra, a professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee and one of the academic leaders of the Top 500 supercomputing list, also sees a decline in systems share by the U.S. that reflects China's "aggressively investing in HPC."

"Remember, in 2001 China had zero systems on the Top 500," Dongarra said.

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Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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