Chinese supercomputer headed to top ranks

A Chinese computer, using a cluster approach that sidesteps trade barriers against the spread of supercomputing technology, is expected to rank high on the next list of fastest machines.

A Chinese supercomputer, the Dawning 4000A, is expected to rank high on an upcoming list of the fastest machines, underscoring geopolitical effects of a new approach to high-performance computing.

Dawning Information Industry, a Chinese company that makes everything from PCs to supercomputers, is building the system for Chinese research institutes and corporations. The machine, with more than 2,000 of Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processors, likely will rank high on the latest list of the 500 fastest computers, due June 22.

"They're expecting it to be in the top 15, based on the numbers they're seeing," said Guy Ludden, marketing manager of AMD's high-performance computing group.

When AMD announced the Dawning 4000A in 2003, it predicted a speed surpassing 10 trillion calculations per second, or 10 teraflops. On the most recent , only three systems surpassed 10 teraflops, though more are expected to arrive this month.

Countries with supercomputing prowess such as the United States have long sought to restrict the export of high-performance calculation technology that could be used for nuclear weapons design or communications decryption. Those export laws have tripped up companies such as Sun Microsystems.

But a newer approach, in which numerous low-end Linux systems are connected with a high-speed network into a high-performance computing cluster, means supercomputers can be built from widespread, ordinary technology.

The new approach, popular for engineering tasks at companies such as Boeing and DaimlerChrysler, has shaken up the Top500 list. The list is updated twice annually, and more changes to the list are expected with its next iteration, due June 22 at the International Supercomputer Conference, ISC2004.

NEC's Earth Simulator has led the supercomputing list since June 2002 with a 35.8-teraflop speed. When the November list arrives, however, the system could be unseated by Cray's Red Storm at Sandia National Laboratories. That computer is expected to clock in at 40 teraflops.

"Red Storm should, hopefully, be on the fall list," Ludden said.

A likely candidate for the upcoming June list, a California Digital system called Thunder at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has more than 4,000 Itanium 2 processors and has already posted a speed of 19.9 teraflops.

At Los Alamos National Laboratory, another cluster system, called Linux Networx's Lightning, is also expected to exceed 10 teraflops.

A more traditional design from Cray, to be built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is expected to reach 50 teraflops. And Blue Gene/L, a hybrid between exotic designs and more standard clusters at the Livermore lab, is expected to reach 360 teraflops in 2005. At that speed, IBM says it is confident its machine will be the fastest in the world.

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