Friday 29 October 2010

Why does the China supercomputer matter to western governments?

[Originally posted on The NAG Blog]

There is a lot of fuss in the mainstream media (BBC, FT, CNET, even the Daily Mail!) the last few days about the world's fastest supercomputer being in China for the first time. And much ado on Twitter (me too - @hpcnotes).

But much of the mainstream reporting, twitter-fest, and blogging is missing the point I think. China deploying the world's fastest supercomputer is news (the fastest supercomputer has almost always been American for decades, with the occasional Japanese crown). But the machine alone is not the big news.

Imagine that China announced a new prototype passenger aircraft, half the cost of the latest Boeing or Airbus. It has 50% greater fuel efficiency too. And an order of magnitude greater predicted reliability statistics. That would be major news. Sure it uses a lot of US designed components too.

But what if China announced this new aircraft wasn't just a prototype. It was a commercially available product now. And they have the capacity to make lots of them - faster than Boeing or Airbus. And they have a plan to train huge numbers of future aircraft maintenance engineers, aerodynamic designers, structural engineers, etc. In other words, China can not only build a world-beating passenger aircraft, but it is building the capability to do so without US designed components in the future. And it is building the expertise capacity to be a world leader in aircraft maintenance.

That would be very important.

And, while we are not quite there yet, that is where this China supercomputer news is going. American scientists and HPC professionals have been calling for rounded investment in people and software not just hardware for years. Europe has been proud of it's relative HPC software expertise, but the recent IDC led EU HPC strategic recommendations report shows that much more investment is needed.

The mass commentary talks about the Chinese hardware milestone. But public material from Chinese experts also talks about a plan to deploy several top supercomputers, to train huge numbers of HPC programmers, to invest in applications development and commercial use of HPC and to develop end-to-end nationally independent supercomputing technology.

If that happens, then China will have the ability to develop that super aircraft industry. And automobile. And the many household products that are designed with supercomputers. And materials science. And ...

Get the point? It's not the world's fastest supercomputer that matters most. It's not just national pride. It's the ambition and comphrensive plan behind the world's leading supercomputer that matters.

[More later today on the comparison with USA, EU and others]

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