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Jun 23 2016

Step Aside, Old Emperors! Here Comes Sunway TaihuLight

A new Chinese supercomputer has blown its rivals out of the water and grabbed the top spot on the TOP500 list of the world's fastest systems, achieving a LINPACK performance of 93 petaflops (quadrillions of operations per second) and a theoretical peak of 125.4 petaflops. That means it's twice as fast and three times as efficient as the previous No.1, Tianhe-2, which also resides in China.

For the first time in three years, the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) had a major surprise to offer when earlier this week it released the 47th edition of the renowned biannual TOP500 list. A Chinese system hardly anyone had heard about in advance shot to the top and all but atomized the results its predecessors had reached running the LINPACK benchmark, or more precisely its HPL implementation designed to measure parallel computing capabilities. Sunway TaihuLight, as it is called, scored an unprecedented 93.0146 petaflops and has enough power under the hood to do even better the next time around – its theoretical maximum performance was estimated to reach 125.436 petaflops. Tianhe-2, which was the undisputed leader between June 2013 and November last year, 'only' offers 33.9 and 54.9 petaflops in comparison and came in second. Coincidentally, June 2013 was also the last time a leading system got pushed aside in such a rigorous fashion; back then, Tianhe-2 dethroned Titan, a system operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, which is now at No. 3.

Probably even more surprising than Sunway TaihuLight's sheer power is the fact that this system is an entirely Chinese achievement. In other words, unlike Tianhe-2, which uses Intel® Xeon® E5-2692v2 CPUs with 12 cores, it builds on SW26010, a 260-core (yes, you read that correctly: two hundred and sixty) processor developed and manufactured at the Jiangnan Computing Lab in Wuxi, China. SW or ShenWei (translated into English as "Sunway") denotes a line of microprocessors originally developed for military use whose microarchitecture is allegedly based on that of DEC Alpha RISC processors. The first ShenWei processors appeared in 2006; SW26010 reportedly marks the fourth generation and runs at 1.45 GHz, roughly 1.5 times as fast as its oldest ancestor. Sunway TaihuLight features 40,960 of these processors – or 10.65 million processor cores – along with an equally breathtaking 1.3 million GB of main memory. However, there are also parallels between TaihuLight and Tianhe-2: both use homegrown interconnects and run on Linux distributions tailor-made for supercomputing (SunwayRaise OS and Kylin, respectively).

With a new system at No. 1, it was already clear that the rest of the coveted top ranks also had to be rearranged. Still few may have foreseen the stir caused by three European systems that catapulted themselves into the Top 20 almost out of the blue. At number 11, we now find Pangea, an SGI ICE X machine operated by the leading French energy and oil exploration outfit Total, which achieved 5.28 petaflops. Positions 17 and 18 went to a pair of unnamed twin supercomputers located at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) in Reading (UK), which clocked in at 3.9 petaflops. Fujitsu's own K computer, which first appeared on the list as a fledgling in June 2011 and immediately hit the top spot with a then-unparalleled 8.16 petaflops, dropped one place to No. 5, even though its performance has since increased to 10.51 petaflops. Otherwise, most position changes appear to be minor; readers who want to know more details can find the full list here.

Whether the latest readjustments will ring in the beginning of a new era or not still remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the official press release dutifully notes that "[t]he latest list marks the first time since the inception of the TOP500 that the U.S is not home to the largest number of systems." Following "a surge in industrial and research installations," China now runs 167 supercomputers and takes away the crown from the U.S., which operate 165 systems. In addition, the advent of Sunway TaihuLight also means the U.S. had to hand over the top spot in the so-called performance category, which measures the total aggregated supercomputing power per nation and/or continent. However, all of these changes probably won't count for much once Intel's recently introduced Xeon Phi™ 7200 processors (aka Knights Landing) arrive at the various national labs – so be prepared for major list revisions within six months or a year from now.


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