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Christopher Mims

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China's Homemade Supercomputer May be the Most Efficient Ever

As processors hit the power wall, performance per watt means everything.

  • March 2, 2011
Dawning 6000 chassis with 10 Godson 3B-powered blade servers installed

China’s home-grown supercomputer, the Dawning 6000, finally has a launch date: Summer 2011. In terms of raw performance, the machine is not going to be a record breaker, but it will be the first machine in the Top500 to be powered entirely by chips designed entirely by China’s Institute of Computing Technology. Long term, they could be a major threat to Intel, AMD, NVIDIA and their ilk.

Weiwu Hu, lead architect of the Loongson line of chips, announced the launch of the forthcoming supercomputer at the International Solid State Circuits Conference held last week. (Technology Review has been covering the development of this supercomputer for over a year, since the first intimation of its construction in January 2010.)

What’s new as of Hu’s latest announcement is the scale of the machine: 300 teraflops, achieved with 3,000 of the 1-Ghz, 8-core Godson 3B chips. That’s a far cry from the #1 position on the world’s list of the top 500 supercomputers, currently occupied by the 2.56 petaflop Tianhe-1A machine, also built in China, but with Intel CPUs and NVIDIA GPUs.

The absolute power of the machine might not matter much, however, because as the platform matures, performance per watt will become the dominant metric, as it has for all other high performance systems (and even the chips in your laptop and cell phone). As HPC Wire reports, “[T]he Godson-3B appears to be a very power-efficient design, and the upcoming Dawning machine could rival even Blue Gene/Q systems for performance per watt supremacy.”

This efficiency is achieved because of the relatively low clock speed of the Godson 3B – only 1.0 GHz – and the chips reliance on the MIPS architecture, which is also used in set-top boxes and is making its way into the smartphone market.

Significantly, in June 2010 the Chinese government was rumored to be contemplating the purchase of a 20 percent stake in MIPS Technologies, holder of the rights to the MIPS instruction set.

Hu also announced the launch in 2012 or 2013 of the Godson 3C chip, which at twice the clock speed and twice the cores of the 3B, will be four times as fast. This chip will be used to build a petascale supercomputer. Were such system to debut today, it would likely be among the ten fastest supercomputers on earth.

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