While the quad-core Loongson 3 could find applications in everything from desktop PCs to set-top boxes (the chip incorporates additional instructions designed specifically to speed up multimedia playback), an eight-core version will likely be need for the proposed petascale supercomputer. That version will incorporate four regular cores, along with four “GStera” coprocessors designed especially for mathematically intensive calculations. These coprocessors are especially significant because they are better at handling intensive mathematical calculations, including the LINPACK test, which uses linear algebra to benchmark the world’s fastest supercomputers, and to determine their ranking (and their owners’ bragging rights) in the Top 500 list of supercomputers.
Jack Dongarra, the computer scientist who introduced the LINPACK benchmark, says that the proposed architecture of the Dawning 6000–multi-purpose cores coupled to coprocessors for certain types of mathematical calculations–follows the standard supercomputer design.
The quad-core Loongson 3 already incorporates two 64-bit floating-point units in each of its cores. So in theory it could be used as the commodity chip in a supercomputer. However, it would require vastly more of these cores to achieve the same processing power, says Dongarra.
Intel remains unfazed by the prospect of a new, state-sponsored contender in the field of high-performance computing. “Measuring competitive impact for a product that does not exist [yet] is always problematic, and we generally refrain from doing so,” says Chuck Mulloy a spokesperson for Intel. “In our entire history there has never been a time when we didn’t face a competitor. We don’t expect that to change–in fact we welcome it.”
Dongarra cautions that it’s pointless to speculate about the performance of the forthcoming Dawning 6000 until benchmarks have been run, not least because the MIPS architecture is nonstandard in high-performance computing. “While I wish them well, I see a lot of challenges to making the whole system work, ” says Dongarra. These challenges include having to adapt the software that Dawning runs.
Halfhill, who has traveled to the ICT in Beijing to report on the birth of the Loongson 3, believes that whatever the performance of the system, it’s only a matter of time before China builds a home-grown chip competitive with those produced in the West. “Technically there’s nothing to stop them from doing world-class processors,” he says. “They’ve got architects and computer scientists just as smart as ours.”