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Supercomputers: Battle of the Speed Machines

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The dragon, symbol of China.

China has surpassed the US by producing the world's fastest supercomputer.

Credit: Mitch Goldfarb

China is surging ahead of the United States in the race to build the world's fastest computers and reap the scientific and economic advantages that go with them.

Last month, China's 55-petaflop Milky Way 2 supercomputer became the world's fastest supercomputer. China is now expected to be the first to reach the exascale threshold, the target of an international race that includes the United States, the European Union, India, Japan, and Russia.

China's advances come as budget issues in Washington have resulted in no substantive plan for the United States to reach exascale computing by 2020. An exascale computer could probably be built today, but it would use about 100MW of power, equivalent to that used by 80,000 U.S. homes. The U.S. plan to achieve exascale requires lower-power chips, denser circuitry, and more efficient cooling systems. "There are fundamental problems in science that do need an exaflop and new sciences will be enabled as well, so it can be transformative," says NVIDIA's Steve Scott.

A recent House energy subcommittee hearing acknowledged that the United States has fallen behind China and Japan in the supercomputing race, despite still leading in intellectual property. Washington needs to provide an extra $400 million a year for an exascale computer in the United States to be feasibly deployed by 2020, says the Department of Energy's Rick Stevens.

From Financial Times
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