China made headlines last year when its Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer became the fastest in the world and helped the Asian nation keep its number one spot on the list of the top 500 supercomputers, both in terms pure processing power and number of machines.
However, TaihuLight, with its 93-petaflops of performance, will pale in comparison to the exascale computer that the Chinese government wants to have ready by 2020. And just this year, according to official state media, the country is looking at developing the first exascale prototype machine. An exaflop is a thousand petaflops, and represents a billion billion (or quintillion, or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000) operations per second.
Three supercomputers are currently in the works in China according to James Lin, Vice Director of HPC Center at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, with all coming online in 2017. Each is based on a different system, one on ARM, another on x86 architecture, and the last one on next-gen Sunway processors. The so-called winner between the three systems will then be tasked with developing an exascale system, to be operational by 2020.
Meanwhile, the EU and Japan have been researching exascale technologies for years now, while the US plans to have an exascale supercomputer by 2021.
However, speed isn’t everything. A report from Top500, quoting Chinese media, shows that a large part of the supercomputing power in China isn’t being used for high performance computing (HPC), instead being found in regular datacenters.
HPC applications, such as AI research or modelling weather, pollution, chemistry and so on, also haven’t been scaled appropriately on such powerful systems. The Chinese team behind TaihuLight won the Gordon Bell prize last year for managing to scale weather research up to 10 million cores, or eight petaflops. That’s a far cry from the computer’s rated power.
Still, having exascale computing devices in use may be a game-changer for numerous industries and our own regular lives. And just for perspective, the first petascale supercomputer became operational in 2008. Only 12 years later we might have something 1000 times more powerful. Now that’s progress.