For almost two years, the University of Sun Yat-Sen in Guanzhou, China, has had their Tianhe-2 supercomputer topping the list of supercomputers compiled by Top 500, an organisation that keeps tabs on these awesome beasts with computing power measuring in the petaflop range. Tianhe-2, or TH-2 for short, was originally constructed using Intel Xeon processors and Xeon Phi co-processors – general-purpose graphics cards that are basically made up of Pentium 3 processors. Since 2013, TH-2 held the world record at 33 petaflops per second of compute power, with 56 petaflops on tap theoretically once they solve the heat issues and optimise the layout a bit.
However, their plans to upgrade TH-2 to just over 110 petaflops have been scuppered by the United States Department of Commerce, which has barred Intel from selling chips to the Chinese government for deployment in TH-2, citing concerns that the extra computing power could be used for nuclear weapons research.
It sounds absurd (and it probably is), but this is how things have played out thus far. The ban came about as Intel was applying for an export license to mass-produce chips designed to the San Yat-Sen University’s specifications, putting in little tweaks as they already do for US-based companies like Google and Facebook. When the Department of Commerce looked at the export list and figured out what they were going to be used for, they denied the license to Intel and published a notice that explained that the license was denied because of concerns about the use of TH-2 in “nuclear explosive activities”.
Apparently, they’re entirely within their rights to do this, as there are sections of US law regarding exports that allow the DOC to revoke license applications for export on the basis that the materials or technology will be used in the design, development or fabrication of nuclear weapons. Which, you know, is odd because Intel is also building the Aurora supercomputer at the University of Illinois, which will weigh in at 180 petaflops, and because the US ships out lots of guns, rockets, ammunition and military equipment every year.
Tianhe-2’s expansion will carry on, though, despite the setback. The Chinese government is expected to begin investing heavily in making their own ARM and MIPS-based processors for use inside the country’s borders. The supercomputer currently runs a customised version of Kylin Linux (BSD-based), but writing code that can be executed on the machine takes years of work because of the use of Xeon Phi GPGPUs.
It is currently used by the Sun Yat-Sen University’s department for Defense Technology for simulating particles such as proteins and other elements occurring at an atomic level, analysis of data sets including big data sets generated by trawling the internet, and development of government security applications, where the machine is used to test security measures deployed on government computers.