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Taiwanese step up their game

Top picture is the Chinese Tianhe-1A high-performance computer and bottom picture is the U.S. Cray Xt5 Jaguar. Don't let the Jaguar's striking aesthetics fool you; the Tianhe-1A is currently the world's fastest high-performance system. Image courtesy China Defense Mashup and Cray Supercomputer Company.

The growth of the orient's economic prowess is prolific in the news today, but now their technological advances are hitting the headlines too. In October 2010, mainland China unveiled the world's fastest high-performance computer, the Tianhe-1A (Milky Way One) system, capable of reaching a peak of 2.57 petaflops per second (quadrillions of calculations per second). This knocked the U.S. Department of Energy's Cray Xt5 Jaguar system off the top spot. Now Taiwanese researchers are catching up with a new high performance computer at the 170 teraflop range (trillions of calculations per second).

Due to launch this July, the high-performance computer will be applied to heavy-duty processing jobs for scientific research in physics and chemistry. Taiwan's National Applied Research Laboratories (NARL) is running the project and aims to improve Taiwan's international competitiveness in scientific research. The as-yet-unnamed machine will be more than nine times faster the Taiwan's current IBM System Cluster 1350, which operates at 20 teraflops.

Taiwan-based Acer Inc., known in the west for producing desktops and laptops, is building the new computing-speedster at a cost of TWD $300 million (US $10.26 million). It is working with HPC vendors QLogic, DataDirect Network, Platform Computing and Allinea Software. The original blueprint calls for a behemoth with over 600 servers, more than 25,000 AMD Opteron and Intel Xeon cores, 70 terabytes of memory and at least 1.1 petabytes of storage.

The aim is to place Taiwan's high-tech machine into the list of the Top 500 Fastest Supercomputers in the world. This listing is a well established and respected benchmark for evaluating high-performance computing resources. The ranking first published in 1993 and they release their figures every June and November.

Chiang Kuo-ning, director of Taiwan's National Center for High-Performance Computing, which is a subsidiary of NARL, said the computer's performance capabilities will place it among the 50-55th fastest in the world. It will also consume up to TWD $50 million (US $1.7 million) worth of electricity per year when fully operational. Meanwhile NARL is ramping up their scientific infrastructure too and creating; bio-medical research centers, autonomic exploration systems, and collaborations to exchange nano-scale technologies.

Do not panic, this is in fact a routine operation for FLIP. It takes in seas water through its ballast tanks to reach a 90 degree vertical angle. When returning back to a horizontal position, compressed air is pumped back into the tanks. Image courtesy Marine Physical Laboratory.

Their ambitions do not stop there as NARL President, Chen Wen-hwa stated they will also launch a new 2,700-ton research vessel to collect data for the supercomputer to crunch.

The ship will be released from Kaohsiung Harbor, Taiwan in May or June this year, commented Chen Kuo-hsing, deputy director of the Taiwan Ocean Research Institute. It will be the largest ocean research vessel in Taiwan and over three times heavier than existing ships that are around 300 to 890 tons.

The hope is that the floating research station will substantially improve Taiwan's marine research and exploration capabilities, while promoting greater public awareness of oceanic science. It will probably be a conventional ship, as opposed to the U.S. Navy FLIP (FLoating Instrument Platform), which has the peculiar trait of performing a controlled vertical capsize for oceanic research.

The 'sleeping dragon' is awakening in the world of high-performance computing. Is this also slowly eroding the technological dominance of the west? Perhaps soon, China's high-performance computers will one day lead the world in scientific breakthroughs and discoveries.

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