The9 exposed as China's supercomputing powerhouse
The ninth mode of art runs on HP clusters
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.
Nine Levels of Computing Justice
The9 happens to trade on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker symbol NCTY. In mid-2007, The9's stock soared above $50 per share only to settle at $24.76 per share at the close of today's trading.
The optimism surrounding The9, during sunnier overall economic conditions, no doubt resulted from its impressive stable of video game titles. It has licenses to so-called MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) Blizzard's World of Warcraft, Soul of the Ultimate Nation, Granado Espada and its own Joyful Journey West. It also has the exclusive rights to other games such as FIFA Online 2 and Ragnarok Online 2. And it's working on new in-house titles.
The breadth of The9's online games has turned the company into a household name in China and a profitable enterprise. In its most recent quarter, The9 posted a 63 per cent rise in revenue to $63m and a 36 per cent rise in net income to $13m. (Interestingly, it should be noted that The9 received a $1.3m government subsidy during the quarter. Where's the US handout for Electronic Arts?)
The company also demonstrates a certain amount of flair.
Regarding the origins of its name, The9 states the following:
The emergence and popularization of the Internet not only alters our ways of living but also brings us a brand new mode of art – Internet Culture. Consequently, adding to the existing eight modes of art, namely, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, music, dance, drama and movie, online game became the ninth mode. Through the ninth mode of art - online game, we aim at inventing online entertainment as a novel way of living for urbanites. In this 'City', enthusiasm, energy and romance come together with the idea of equality, respect and love.
While rather dramatic, The9 might not be overstating this "ninth mode" of art.
In April, for example, The9 boasted about having 1m World of Warcraft users online at the same time in China. That's an awesome total and one that reflects Asia's love for WoW. Blizzard has more than 10m WoW subscribers, with 2m in Europe, 2.5m in North America and 5.5m in Asia.
Like many popular online game houses - Linden Lab, we're looking at you - The9 suffers from the weight of its own success.
The9 officials have been forced to apologize for long-running server issues.
"The9's servers has long been a source of frustration for Chinese WoW players," complains  one local. "Many irate players refers to them dryly as 'Little Overlords,' a brand of cheap basic home computers (or 'learning machines' as they were advertised) popular in China in the 90's that were less powerful than Commodore 64s."
That same player ridicules The9's servers as being of "questionable quality" and the cause for massive amounts of downtime during peak playings hours.
It would seem that The9 spares no expense on its computing infrastructure, creating a supercomputer-class machine for handling the games. We, however, have limited means of comparing the scale of The9's systems to other WoW houses, for example, since Blizzard has rebuffed our requests for comments on either its infrastructure or its partners.
The figures on The9's systems do date back to 2007, when the last Top100 machines in China list was created. Computer scientists in China will update the list of top machines this November when the officials behind the Top500 supercomputers in the world list release their latest figures.
We suspect The9's prominence on China's top machines chart will decline in the years to come, as the country's computing infrastructure grows. Until that happens, The9 can enjoy a few months of computing glory thanks to our public outing. See you in the ninth mode. ®