China's supercomputer growth is exploding while the US is losing steam

It comes as no surprise that Linux is the operating system of choice for supercomputers. What is surprising is that China is now the world's fastest growing supercomputer power while the US has fallen to its lowest level ever.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

As usual, Linux runs the supercomputing world. In the latest, November 2015. Top500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers, Linux reached a new high of 98.8 percent, 494 of the 500.

China's Linux-powered Tianhe 2 supercomputer remains, by a wide margin, the world's fastest supercomputer.
All the other high-performance operating systems have been knocked out. Only AIX, IBM's Unix, remains with six supercomputers to its credit. Windows? Solaris? They're history.

There's nothing shocking about that. What is surprising is that China's supercomputer growth has exploded.

According to the Top500 organization, "China nearly tripled the number of systems on the latest list, while the number of systems in the United States has fallen to the lowest point since the TOP500 list was created in 1993. China is also carving out a bigger share as a manufacturer of high performance computers with multiple Chinese manufacturers becoming more active in this field."

Specifically, China has leaped to 109 systems, from the 37 it boasted on the previous Top500 list. The United States still has the overall lead with 200 of the fastest supercomputers. However, that's down down from 231 in July. Worse still, it's the U.S.'s lowest number since the Top500 list was created in 1993.

Elsewhere, Europe has fallen to 108 systems compared to 141 earlier this year. Japan's share has dropped slightly from 40 to 36 systems.

At the same time, China's computer vendors are becoming leaders in high performance computers (HPC). Lenovo, following its acquisition of IBM's x86 server business in 2014, is now up to 25 Top500 systems from just three systems on the July 2015 list.

Some systems that were previously listed as IBM are now joint IBM/Lenovo productions and Lenovo/IBM (five systems). Eventually, as the last of the contracts behind these supercomputers end, they'll go to Lenovo's count. Sugon, a Chinese HPC and server vendor that's relatively unknown in the West, has overtaken IBM with 49 systems.

Overall, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE), with 136 supercomputers, is the leading HPC vendor. It's followed by Cray, 69, and Sugon.

At the very top of the list, and for the sixth straight time, Tianhe-2, a supercomputer developed by China's National University of Defense Technology, is the world's fastest computer. This time around it scored 33.86 petaflop/s (quadrillions of calculations per second or Pflop/s) on the Linpack benchmark.

Holding on to the No. 2 spot, Titan, a Cray XK7 system installed at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is the top U.S. system. It scored 17.59 petaflop/s. In other words, Tianhe-2 remains much faster than it.

There are only two new systems in the Top 10. The first, at number six, is the Trinity supercomputer. It was built by Cray and is jointly deployed by the Department of Energy's (DOE) Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories. In the number 8 spot, there's Cray's Hazel-Hen system. It's installed at Germany's HLRS Supercomputer center.

Cray, long synonymous with supercomputers, is on comeback trial. In terms of pure, performance, Cray systems now claim 24.9 percent share of installed total performance. That's up from 24 percent. While IBM has far fewer systems, the ones that it has left took second place with a 14.9 percent share. HPE, even though it easily has the most Top500 supercomputers, has 12.9 percent of the overall performance power. This places HPE in third place.

Overall, supercomputer performance is slowing down. The last place system's performance had grown by only 55 percent. That sounds impressive, but it pales compared to 1994 to 2008's annual 90 percent growth rate.

Technically, supercomputers are increasingly using accelerator/co-processor technology to boost performance. 104 systems on the Top500, up from 90 in July 2015. are now relying on this floating point technology. 66 of these use NVIDIA chips, three use ATI Radeon, and 27 systems work with Intel's Xeon Phi processors. Four systems use a combination of Nvidia and Intel Xeon Phi accelerators/co-processors.

What to make of all this? Well, there's no question about it. Linux rules supercomputing. But, that's old news. What's interesting, and disturbing, if you're interested in the U. S remaining a high-technology "leader" is that we're declining. And, with IBM now moving out of supercomputers, it appears that fall from supercomputing power will only continue. Within two years it seems all too likely that China will be the top supercomputing country.

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