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The9 exposed as China's supercomputing powerhouse

The ninth mode of art runs on HP clusters

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Exclusive For more than six months, a list ranking the top supercomputers in China has been floating around, but no one has managed to solve its riddle.

The list begins much like any other supercomputer ranking. IBM built the top system, which is a cluster of servers running on Xeon chips from Intel. An oil company - China Petroleum and Chemical Corp. - owns the machine. The next system, also built by IBM, belongs to the China Meteorological Administration. The third machine, a cluster made by Dawning, sits at the Shanghai Supercomputer Center, and the fourth system again belongs to the China Meteorological Administration. So, that's oil and gas exploration, some weather modeling and serious science work. Very standard stuff in the so-called high performance computing market.

The systems ranked 5-10, however, prove more curious. These identical 1950-core clusters built by HP belong to "Gaming Company."

It's almost a sign of disrespect to have such a prominent position on a list of top supercomputers and remain shrouded in anonymity. No self-congratulating, red-blooded US company would dare turn down the marketing opportunity presented by owning six of the country's fastest computers. What, after all, is the point of even having lists if comparisons against rivals and bragging can't occur from time-to-time?

But try as it might to remain secret, the true identity of "Gaming Company" has been discovered by The Register. Our sources in China have revealed that the these six systems belong to The9 - a famous video game distributor and the Chinese proprietor of World of Warcraft.

The9 owns at least 12 of the Top 100 machines in China and may have up to 16 systems on the list. (We've not been able to confirm four of the anonymous machines, although they're all also made by HP and belong to an anonymous gaming company. And, despite repeated attempts, The9 has declined to return our requests for comment.)

Taking just the 12 machines, The9 has at least 18,032 cores of processing power - a mix of Xeons, Opterons and even Itaniums - dedicated to distributing games throughout mainland China.

It's true enough that China's supercomputer list reflects a nation that's still in the early stages of building out its computing infrastructure. Only 12 of the top Chinese systems rank among the 500 fastest machines on the planet, according to the most recent Top500 supercomputer list. Meanwhile, the US claims 257 of the top machines, the UK 53, Germany 46 and France 34.

In addition, the Chinese list is filled with systems from mainstream industries such as oil and gas, entertainment and telecommunications. By contrast, the top Western machines tend to reside inside of government-funded laboratories and universities. (Part of this discrepancy may result from the fact that many foreign government bodies like to boast about their computing giants, while the PRC appears to keep many government systems hidden. In addition, Western companies tend not to bother with benchmarking their business clusters, while the Chinese seem eager to do so.)

Regardless of how you examine the trends affecting the lists of supercomputing machines, The9's story stands out as something rather remarkable. This one company aims more than 10 per cent of China's top computers at the singular task of sending out video games to the millions of local players.

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