Inside China’s Tianhe-2: The World’s Most Powerful Computer

The world's most powerful computer belongs to China.

The world’s most powerful computer belongs to China.

Twice a year, the TOP500 project ranks the 500 most powerful computer systems in the entire world. With origins dating back to 1993, the list provides a reliable basis for tracking and detecting trends in high-performance computing. Compiled by some of the best computer science minds on the planet, the TOP500 list is a Who’s Who of the most innovative countries in terms of computing technologies. And for the third consecutive time, China’s Tianhe-2 supercomputer has been ranked number one.

The Tianhe-2, which translates to “Milky Way-2” in English, is so powerful that it required a team of 1,300 scientists and engineers from China’s National University of Defense Technology to build it. Sponsored by the People’s Republic of China’s State High-Tech Development Plan, the computer was built on the premise that China could one day become independent of financial obligations for foreign technologies. The computer is so powerful, that it’s able to perform 33,860 trillion calculations per second. One hour of these calculations by the machine is the equivalent of 1,000 years of difficult sums by 1.3 billion people – ironically, the current population in China.

One look at the specs and you can see why the Tianhe-2 is at the top of the list:

  • Cores: 3,120,000
  • Linpack Performance (Rmax): 33,862.7 TFlop/s
  • Theoretical Peak (Rpeak): 54,902.4 TFlop/s
  • Power: 17,808.00 kW
  • Memory: 1,024,000 GB
  • Interconnect: TH Express-2
  • Operating System: Kylin Linux
  • Compiler: icc
  • Math Library: Intel MKL-11.0.0
  • MPI: MPICH2 with a customized GLEX Channel
The Tianhe-2 is nearly twice as fast as the second-fastest computer in the world.

The Tianhe-2 is nearly twice as fast as the second-fastest computer in the world.

With 16,000 computer nodes, each composed of two Intel Ivy Bridge Xeon processors and three Xeon Phi coprocessor chips, the Tianhe-2 is almost twice as fast as the second computer on the list: the United States’ Cray Titan. And while the United States still has the most computers on the TOP500 list with 233, that number is 32 fewer than it had on the previous list. Meanwhile, China now has 76 computers on the list, 13 more than last time.

China’s growth in computer technology is impressive. While the Tianhe-2 is the only Chinese computer ranked in the top 10, the Asian nation now has nearly as many computers as the UK (30), France (27), and Germany (23) combined. And while there seems to be a slowing trend in performance growth from all nations, China is one of two nations (the other being Japan) who is growing. But, does this mean China can become financially independent from foreign technologies? Not quite.

According to a press release issued by the TOP500, “Intel continues to provide the processors for the largest share (85.4 percent) of TOP500 systems.” Couple this with the fact that HP has the lead in systems with 182 (36 percent) and IBM is in second place with 176 (35 percent), and it becomes apparent that American companies are paving the future of computer technologies. However, because supercomputers have become so powerful, it has actually been a hindrance to the overall growth in computer system performance.

“For the second consecutive list, the overall growth rate of all the systems is at a historical low. This lag in the overall average performance of all 500 systems is noticeably influenced by the very large systems at the top of the list. Recent installations of very large systems – up to June 2013 – have counteracted the reduced growth rate at the bottom of the list, but with few new systems at the top of the past few lists, the overall growth rate is now slowing. This offers an indication that the market for the very largest systems might currently behave differently from the market of mid-sized and smaller supercomputers.”

–The TOP500

Supercomputers play an important role in our lives. Used for a wide range of computationally intensive tasks, they are essential for quantum mechanics, weather forecasting, climate research, oil and gas exploration, molecular modeling, physical simulations, the detonation of nuclear weapons, and other applications. The Tianhe-2, which hasn’t been put to work yet, already has big plans in store.

According to the National University of Defense Technology, the Tianhe-2 will be used for simulation, analysis, and government security applications. But with a price tag over $385 million dollars that occupies 7,750 square feet of space, some people think it’s a bit of overkill for what it will be used for.

“I have visited many computing centers. In some places dust has built up on the computer because the entire facility had been shut down for months without a single user. Even in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, only a small fraction of the total capacity was used. The supercomputer bubble is worse than a real estate bubble. A building will stand for decades after it is built, but a computer, no matter how fast it is today, will become garbage in five years.”

A Senior Scientist at the Beijing Computing Center

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22 Responses to Inside China’s Tianhe-2: The World’s Most Powerful Computer

  1. Damaged Industries June 23, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

    Sadly, it still cannot play that unoptimized piece of ****, Watch_Dogs, on Ultra.

    • Redtail June 23, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

      It runs on Intel, it should be fine.

    • Andrew O'Donnell (@DruVirus) June 23, 2014 at 7:56 pm #

      The joke would be better if it was for, say, Crysis. Watch_Dogs ultra specs aren’t that crazy.

      • William Murphy June 24, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

        You don’t understand the joke at all. Watchdogs is poorly optimized and runs horribly in comparison to the graphics it pumps out. Computers that will pull 60fps on Crysis 3 will not run even 40 FPS while driving in watchdogs and that is with several hidden quality features currently forced and locked in the off position. They game actually is capable of looking much better but they have disabled certain features either because of the performance issues or because they didn’t want it look too much better than PS4 and xbone.

        • Tim Swanson July 3, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

          You’re speaking WAY too generally.

          To say “Computers that will pull 60fps on Crysis 3 will not run even 40 FPS while driving in watchdogs” is targetting probably such a tiny section of PCs.

          I have no clue how you can speak so matter-of-factly.

          My PC that I built in February runs Watch_Dogs super smoothly on Ultra, so, you’re wrong right there.

          Stop projecting your unfounded anger at Ubisoft.

          Same to you, Damaged Industries. How someone can say that the game isn’t optimized, is beyond me.

          All in all, get this over-played complaint out of this completely unrelated article.

  2. aka TRAP June 23, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

    But can it run Minecraft?

  3. Scott Taylor June 23, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    Yes, but can it run Crysis?

  4. Brandon Griffin June 23, 2014 at 5:05 pm #

    Bitcoin miner?

    • William Murphy June 24, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

      There are most likely mining farms that are faster. You have to remember that an ASIC (the very specialized processor that they use for bit coin mining) is many many many times faster than the fastest graphics card and graphics cards are many times faster than the fastest CPUs. So since this thing was not built to mine it can’t really mine.

      Also by can’t I mean that for every $1 worth of coin it makes it will probably cost several dollars in electricity since you can’t mine with CPUs and graphics cards anymore.

  5. theherped derper June 23, 2014 at 5:48 pm #

    pretty sure if they did bitcoin mining on the thing, they would be at 9001 ph/s gg everyone bitcoins will be impossible to mine

  6. ajigger June 23, 2014 at 8:08 pm #

    The most expensive set of LED display ever!!!

  7. SloppyFloppy June 23, 2014 at 11:48 pm #

    Sadly, these all still pale in comparison to NSA’s Utah datacenter.

    • Thomas Grant Bennett June 24, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

      A datacenter and high performance computer are two different things. Similar but different. Data centers scale basically linearly because they don’t necessarily share workload. i.e. the Utah Data center mostly saves, sorts, and analyzes data. This HPC is running simulations that might change depending on the work of the other compute nodes.

      Frequently HPCs have compute racks, storage racks, RAM racks, and all nodes are connected through some extremely fast inter-connect like Infiniband, fiber, or some proprietary tech. This is different from a data center where the inter-connect is usually 1Gb or 10Gb Ethernet and each computer node is self contained (has own RAM, CPU, GPU, etc).

  8. James Roselle June 24, 2014 at 6:55 am #

    “the Tianhe-2 will be used for simulation, analysis, and government security applications…. ” Isnt this a code name for Hacking into other countries system and stealing their technology? How else will they become Financially independant? so the reason they built it IS correct,,,

    • browse June 25, 2014 at 12:05 am #

      sounds like you work for NSA with all those secret thoughts.

  9. Aliguile June 24, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    *incidentally

  10. fade2green514 June 24, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

    Or you could just say 33.86 quadrillion

  11. J June 24, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

    Qubit from the nsa new.machine is nothing buhahah super posiioning for.the win yesss

  12. Me June 25, 2014 at 10:12 am #

    Damn Chinese WoW gold farmers…..

  13. Aidan Yokuda June 26, 2014 at 10:01 pm #

    can it run mine sweeper?

  14. jin August 12, 2014 at 3:14 am #

    Wow, as you all say, and ask, yeah, this is a supercomputer… no doubt, and as its configuration says, it is composed of tons of computers, interfaced as 1, making a specs of a sum of all the computer specs. To be accurate, tons of intel processors. I wonder what GPU does it use? hehehe:D
    Does it have directX20? hahaha:D even though you have ultra,super,marvelous,expendable computer, if your software is not that great, you wont benefot much on it. They rather need tons of best of the best programmers to manage this ultra thing properly… Anyway to be the worlds best is not an easy task..;)
    Cheers to Chinese……

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