Thinking Tech

The mysterious processor behind China's first homegrown supercomputer

The mysterious processor behind China's first homegrown supercomputer

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Forget Intel and AMD: a little known family of chips is finally drawing China into the processor wars.

The majority of today's supercomputers follow a tested and reliable template. Hundreds, thousands, and occasionally tens of thousands of processors are clustered together to work in concert. The processors are almost invariably built by Intel or AMD, and aren't particularly special--the Jaguar supercomputer, which is widely regarded as the world's most capable, is essentially just a cluster of 37,376 2.5GHz AMD Opteron processors, which are just as readily sold to consumers building servers or gaming computers as they are to governments or research institutions.

China's Loongson family of processors, which are the product of a partnership between China's Institute of Computing Technology (ICT) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, are hoping to break the hegemony. The first step: to serve as the basis for the country's first truly native supercomputer, the Dawning 6000.

When it's completed next year, the machine will likely rank among the world's 500 most powerful supercomputers, which would be a stunning achievement considering its heretofore unproven chip.

The Loongson processors, also known as "Godson" processors, bear little technical resemblance to their Intel and AMD counterparts, since they use a distinct architecture called MIPS. MIPS processors are in wide use in everything from game consoles to embedded systems, though they're a relative rarity in personal computing. (They enjoyed a brief surge in popularity during the early 90s, only to be pushed out of the space by a wildly dominant Intel.)

Some Loongson processors have been used in a handful of consumer products--mostly small netbooks and low-power computers. Since the processors are based on a fairly novel architecture, common consumer software--most notably Microsoft Windows--isn't compatible. But while Loongson's boosters certainly hope it has a future in consumer products, its first large-scale triumph will (in theory) be its involvement in the Dawning project.

That said, the specific chips in question don't sound terribly impressive, at least on paper. The Dawning 6000 will be powered by the Godson-3b, an eight core processor that clocks in at a modest 1GHz. Processor frequency isn't everything, and comparing the Godson-3b to competing Intel and AMD chips based on specs is made especially difficult by their distinct architectures, and the fact that the processors, and MIPS processors in general, haven't been tested in the context of the modern supercomputer. But in practical terms, it will likely lag behind its American counterparts, a processor expert told Technology Review:

According to Tom Halfhill, industry analyst and editor of Microprocessor Report, the eight-core Godson 3B will still be significantly less powerful than Intel's best chip, the six-core Xeon processor. It will be able to perform roughly 30 percent fewer mathematical calculations per second.

But to focus on direct comparisons is to miss the point. China is already a world powerhouse in electronics manufacturing, though product design and research often fall to nations with more entrenched CE industries, like Japan or the US. The Loongson processor family, flawed as it may be, will be a success if it can bring native Chinese electronics--in this case, a research supercomputer--within striking distance of the current leading technology.

The Dawning project's faith in Loongson processors is a small but useful reminder that, in terms of computing and consumer electronics, China isn't just home to one of the most powerful labor forces on earth, it's a country driving to become research and design powerhouse, too. Intel and AMD can rest easy for now, but not forever.

Pictured: An older Loongson processor, the 450MHz 2C.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure