Enter the Dragon: The Chinese superputer set to win the Top500 crown

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The Chinese government can keep a secret probably as well as any organisation on the planet, but pride will get the best of anyone - at least some of the time.

And so it is that Xiangke Liao, the professor from the National University of Defense Technology has outed the details of the "Tianhe-2" massively parallel supercomputer at the International HPC Forum in Changsha, China.

As El Reg has previously reported, some of the details were almost immediately leaked from the meeting. Jack Dongarra, of Linpack benchmark fame and himself a professor at the University of Tennessee, was at the IHPCF meeting and put together a report about Tianhe-2 from the presentation that Xiangke gave on the machine that will almost certainly rank first on the Top500 supercomputer list in a little more than a week.

The Tianhe-2 machine is significant for a number of different reasons. First, once again China is taking the top-flopper crown away from the United States, and has left supercomputing efforts in Europe and Japan in the dust - at least in terms of raw floating point performance.

What the Tianhe-2 super should look like in its final home

What the Tianhe-2 super should look like in its final home

Tianhe-2 also shows, for those who don't already get it, that China is not only deadly serious about massively parallel computing, but also about using petascale and someday exascale computing as a means of bolstering its military, its industry and its climate modelling.

And as is the case with all of the superpowers, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between military and commercial interests. It would be a fair statement to say that China has more money to splurge these days, and is not reluctant to do so. And over the long haul, if you believe that HPC is a driver of industry, that is going to be a problem for the US, Japanese, and European economies if they don't get their HPC priorities straight and explain to people that this is just like an Apollo moon shot, but one that has to be sustained over decades.

That said, the fact that Tianhe-2 is based on Intel Xeon processors and Xeon Phi coprocessors shows that despite China's efforts to deliver its own MIPS-derived Godson processors as well as its own variants of the Sparc processor, it has not been able to get a completely indigenous machine into the field that sits atop the Top500 list, or even among the highest ranking machines. This is no doubt annoying to the Chinese government and the supercomputing community in the Middle Kingdom - and it shows that chip innovation is not as easy as it looks. (Or, more precisely, it is as difficult as it looks.)

Make no mistakes, however. The Tianhe-1A and Tianhe-2 machines built by China are really about designing and testing the homegrown "Arch" interconnect and getting experience in massively parallel applications on the way to building a completely indigenous machine. As long as China has the cash, it can buy development time for its fledgling chip industry by using processors and coprocessors from American suppliers. It can take as much time as it needs to, but the big fear in the U S of A is that China will create a complete supercomputing stack and want to sell it here and in Europe. How do you say no to a country that you owe $2 trillion to? It was far easier to accuse Hitachi and Fujitsu of dumping back in the 1990s and block the sale of their vector supercomputers through massive tariffs to protect Cray and, indirectly, others.

Tianhe-2 is also noteworthy because it is the first time since the ASCI Red machine was installed at Sandia National Laboratories – one of the big Department of Energy facilities in the US – that Intel is at the pinnacle of the Top500 rankings with a machine that is based solely on its motors. Sure, the Tianhe-1A machine that topped the list three years ago had Xeon processors, but it also had Nvidia Tesla coprocessors. And Nvidia was bidding on the upgrade to Tianhe-2, but Chipzilla apparently made the Chinese government an offer it wouldn't refuse. Or, perhaps it was the other way around for all we know. When you are buying 32,000 processors and 48,000 coprocessors, the customer, not the vendor, has the most leverage.

Up to a point, of course. Intel is not in the business of giving chips away, particularly if it wants the US supercomputing centers to adopt a ceepie-phibie approach for their next wave of systems. It is a delicate balance and all parties are inscrutable. The scuttlebutt is that Tianhe-2 is significantly more expensive than some low-ball figures that are floating around – as low as $100m – but until this system hack sees the purchase order, I don't believe any of this idle talk. There are too many people who want to give the impression that Intel gave the motors in this machine away to suit their own purposes. Intel has no interest in telling people what Tianhe-2 costs and is no doubt being muzzled by the Chinese government anyway. Everyone is talking about it costing between $200m and $300m, but the Chinese government has not said yet what it is paying to make Tianhe-2.

Intel – and Sparc and Arch – Inside

The configuration of the Tianhe-2 system is more or less as we described it last week when the rumors started coming out. We had originally speculated that Intel might be supplying a forthcoming, higher-end Xeon Phi 7000 series coprocessor for the machine, which is expected to be launched soon alongside some other 3000 and 5000 series cards. But after mulling it over, we reckoned that what NUDT might do instead is match up the soon-to-be-announced "Ivy Bridge-EP" Xeon E5 v2 processors from Intel with an embedded (meaning smaller and cheaper) version of a 3000 series Xeon Phi. The latter turns out to be the case, although it is much less exciting. The Xeon Phi 3000 parts are no doubt going to be less expensive than the Xeon Phi 7000s, and as with the Xeon and Itanium processors, the top-bin SKUs always offer worse bang for the buck than the standard parts and are aimed at those users who are absolutely desperate for peak performance and are willing to pay through the nose for it.

According to the report put together by Dongarra, Tianhe-2 is currently installed at NUDT, not in a particularly optimal layout, and will eventually be moved to the National Supercomputer Center in Guangzhou (NSCC-GZ) by the end of the year.

The system boards and system installation and testing were done by Inspur, one of several aggressive server makers in China. (As has been the case in the United States for decades, the Chinese government likes to spread around HPC system manufacturing – and therefore its risk – across multiple suppliers. In this case Dawning and Inspur are getting some of the bigger deals. This is a luxury the US could afford in the past but may not be able to sustain in the future; China will be able to afford it unless a ginormous meteor slams into the Great Wall.)

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