Arik Hesseldahl

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China Retakes Supercomputing Crown With a Lot of American Chips

The latest edition of the Top 500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers is out today, and a machine in China has retaken the crown from the United States.

The machine is nicknamed Milky Way 2, but is formally known as Tianhe-2, (the word translates literally as “Sky River”), and was built at China’s National University of Defense Technology. In taking the top spot, it knocked Titan, a machine built at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, off its perch.

Now, before any of you reading in the U.S. get all bummed about the decline of American technical superiority, consider this: Its main computing engine was made in America. Tianhe-2 has 16,000 nodes, each containing two Intel-made Xeon Ivy Bridge processors and three Xeon Phi processors, bringing the total number of computing cores to 3.12 million.

Its total performance is 33.86 petaflops, which means it can conduct 33.86 quadrillion calculations per second. I’ll write that number out so you can see all the zeros: 33,860,000,000,000,000. That’s almost twice — but not quite — as powerful as Titan, which can do 17.59 petaflops. Titan runs on 560,640 processors, of which 261,632 are Nvidia-made accelerators. The rest are Opteron chips made by Advanced Micro Devices.

This is the second time that a Chinese machine has topped the list, which is updated twice a year. The first was in 2010, when the Tianhe-1A system at China’s National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin took the crown, and did so with a relatively quaint — by today’s standard — 2.57 petaflops.

China’s dominance was short-lived the first time around: Japan nabbed the title with a Fujitsu-made machine in late 2011.

American machines have dominated on subsequent Top 500 lists, until today. A year ago, an IBM-made machine called Sequoia, at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, held the top spot. It’s now No. 3. Titan took the title in November.

A few more facts about the new list: There are now 26 machines that have a computing capacity north of one petaflop, up from 23 on the last list. Some 54 machines are using graphical processing units from the likes of Nvidia, AMD and Intel to boost their computing oomph, down from 62 on the last list.

And while it may not have the fastest computer in the world, the U.S. leads the world in total supercomputing capacity: Of the machines on the Top 500 list, 252 are in the U.S.; 112 are in Europe, with 29 in the U.K., 23 in France and 19 in Germany; 66 are in China; and 30 are in Japan.

The Top 500 list (which you can see in full here) is compiled twice every year by Hans Meuer at Germany’s University of Mannheim, Erich Strohmaier and Horst Simon of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Jack Dongarra of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus