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China pushes supercomputing goal despite US curbs



China is expected to complete the construction of a site in Shenzhen for its third exascale supercomputer in 2025, aiming to show its determination to bypass the United States’s sanctions. 

An exascale supercomputer is more than a million times faster than the US Department of Energy (DOE)’s Intel ASCI Red supercomputer, which was launched in 1996 with a speed of 1.06 teraflops. “Exa” means 18 zeros while “tera” means 12 zeros.

The US currently has two exascale machines: the Frontier at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility in Tennessee and DOE’s Aurora at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. Frontier is the world’s fastest supercomputer with a peak speed of 1.68 exaflops.

China also has two exascale supercomputers: Sunway TaihuLight at the National Supercomputing Centre (NSC) in Wuxi and Tianhe-3 at the NSC in Tianjin. One more prototype exascale system is based in the NSC in Shenzhen.

Jack Dongarra, a winner of the Turing Award in 2022 and a co-editor of the Top500 List, told the South China Morning Post on September 14 that all three exascale supercomputers in China may already be up and running in China. 

He said China may exceed all countries in terms of supercomputing power but the country stays low-profile to avoid more US sanctions. 


His comments have drawn a lot of attention from hardware fans and technology columnists. 

Tom’s Hardware, a digital media company, published an article headlined, “China may have unmatched supercomputer abilities, third exascale machines apparently online.” 

Citing the SCMP report, the writer of the article says there is an open question of whether the US has achieved its goal of restricting China’s ability to catch up to it technologically and economically.

Ou Hanzhong, a Chinese technology writer, says China’s third exascale supercomputer has already commenced operation, meaning that the US sanctions failed to suppress China but instead pushed the country to boost its research and development. 

However, according to public information, no evidence showed that China’s third exascale machine has been online. State media said the construction of the phase two facility of the NSC in Shenzhen, which will accommodate a two-exaflops supercomputer, has just started last November and will be completed in 2025. 

Feng Shengzhong, director of the NSC in Shenzhen, said in April 2020 that after the completion of the second-phase project, the center could boost its computing power by 1,000 times and become the city’s brain to serve different sectors.

US sanctions

In February 2015, the US Commerce Department added China’s National University of Defense Technology and the NSCs in Changsha, Guangzhou and Tianjin to its entity list. 


It said the Tianhe–1A and Tianhe–2 supercomputers, in Tianjin and Guangzhou, respectively, were used in research about nuclear explosive activities. In the same year, it banned Intel from selling microprocessors for China’s supercomputers. At that time, Tianhe–2 was dubbed the world’s fastest supercomputer. 

In 2016, Sunway Microelectronics, a fabless chipmaker in China, launched the SW26010 processor, which uses Alpha architecture and is a 28nm chip made by the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC). 

Separately, Tianjin Phytium Information Technology, another fabless chipmaker, in 2017 launched the FT2000 processor, which uses ARM architecture and is a 16nm chip made by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC).

Both Sunway and Tianjin Phytium, together with the NSCs in Jinan, Shenzhen, Wuxi and Zhenghou and the Shanghai High-Performance Integrated Circuit Design Center, were sanctioned by the US in April 2021. 

This could not stop the two Chinese supercomputers – Sunway TaihuLight and Tianhe-3, which used the SW26010 and FT2000 processors, respectively – from passing the one-exaflop mark in 2021, according to the Gordon Bell Prize. The duo did not seek ranking on the Top500 List.

David Kahaner, founder of the Asian Technology Information Program, said in 2021 that the NSC in Shenzhen had selected Chinese company Sugon, or Dawning Information Industry Co, to develop a two-exaflops system for installation in 2022 but the project has been delayed. 

Kahaner told the Financial Times in May last year that China planned to have 10 exascale systems by 2025. He said the US should consider loosening its sanctions against the NSC in Wuxi in the hope of a “deeper glimpse” into China’s supercomputing systems.


Sanctions against Sugon 

In 2010, a Chinese supercomputer called Nebulae at the NSC in Shenzhen won the title of the world’s fastest supercomputer with a speed of 1.27 petaflops (“Peta” means 15 zeros.)  It was built by Sugon with Intel Xeon X5650 processors and Nvidia Tesla C2050 GPUs. 

After Sugon delivered a prototype exascale system to the NSCs in Shenzhen and Shanghai in October 2018, it was sanctioned by the US Commerce Department in June 2019 and by the US Treasury Department in December 2021.

The company said in June 2019 that its purchases of US products had been seriously affected by the curbs. 

Since then, it has shifted to using Hygon and Loongson processors. Media reports said Hygon’s X86 processor is a 14nm chip made by Samsung and GlobalFoundries while Loongson’s 3A5000 processor, which uses the company’s own architecture, is a 12nm chip made by TSMC. 

Some technology columnists said that although Chinese supercomputers can continue to source 12-28nm chips, they won’t be able to cut power consumption if they don’t have smaller processors. They said global peers are mainly using 4-7nm chips. They said the use of Chinese supercomputers will be hindered by their high operating costs.

Read: China, India race for 1,000-qubit quantum computers

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3


Source: Asia Times

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