Since June 2013, China has boasted the world’s fastest supercomputer: the Tianhe-2, built by China’s National University of Defense Technology and housed at the National Super Computer Center in Guangzhou. According to the TOP500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers, Tianhe-2 boasts a speed of 33.86 pentaflops (one pentaflop is one quadrillion floating-point calculations per second), nearly double the United States’ second-place computer, Titan (housed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee). The United States still holds the title for most systems on the list, accounting for 233 of the 500 (China only had 37 supercomputers on the July 2015 list).
However, U.S. President Barack Obama is determined to win the number one ranking back for the United States. On July 29, he issued an Executive Order creating the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), with the goal of researching and building the first supercomputer to reach 1,000 pentaflops (or one exaflop) – nearly 30 times faster than Tianhe-2. The U.S. already has a 100-petaflop computer in development, slated to be ready in 2017; Obama wants computers capable of speeds 10 times that.
“Creating and deploying technology at the leading edge is vital to advancing my Administration’s priorities and spurring innovation,” Obama wrote in the Executive Order. “It is the policy of the United States to sustain and enhance its scientific, technological, and economic leadership position in HPC [high-performance computing] research, development, and deployment through a coordinated Federal strategy.”
China’s government also sees supercomputing as a national interest. For China, the top ranking is a symbol of the country’s achievements in science and technology. “We are producing supercomputers with a fundamental purpose of providing a driving force for the construction of an innovation-oriented country,” Li Nan, a spokesperson for the Tianhe-2 project, said in June 2013. Xi Jinping wants China to be a “cyber power,” which will center on a transition away from reliance on foreign technology to using home-grown tech.
It may be a blessing in disguise, then, that U.S. chipmaker Intel was recently denied an export license to supply chips for Chinese supercomputer projects. The U.S. Commerce Department said that Tianhe-2 and its predecessor, Tianhe-1, “are believed to be used in nuclear explosive activities.” Four facilities relating to the supercomputer – including the supercomputer center in Guangzhou and the National University of Defense Technology — have been put on a list of entities acting against U.S. national security interests. In the short term, the restrictions may lead to China losing its top ranking, but in the long run could actually give a boost to Chinese chipmakers by eliminating their competition (something China is already trying to do by restricting foreign technology use for security reasons).
According to Xinhua, Tianhe-2 “has been used to aid gene analysis, development of new drugs, the aerodynamic numerical calculation of large aircraft and high-speed trains, among others.” Since it came online in June 2013, the supercomputer “has provided high performance computing and cloud computing services for almost 400 clients at home and abroad,” Xinhua added.