We can't rely on foreign chips, says China supercomputer builder

August 14, 2018 13:03
Yan Wei, deputy director of the National Supercomputing Center of Tianjin, said the center is making a new supercomputer using domestically developed chips. Photo: HKEJ

China is currently the world's largest chip market. However, homegrown chips account for less than 20 percent of total consumption, while the remaining demand is satisfied by imports from foreign countries like the United States.

But now the chip market is caught in the crossfire of the US-China trade war. A vivid example is the US ban on the export of crucial high-end chips to Chinese telecoms equipment maker ZTE, which temporarily shut down its operations.

Despite the trade conflict, the National Supercomputing Center of Tianjin, the developer of the Tianhe-1 supercomputer, is making a new supercomputer using domestically developed chips.

“We can no longer rely on others [in chip technology],” Yan Wei, deputy director of the center, told Hong Kong Economic Journal during the recent media visit to the facility.

Launched in 2010, Tianhe-1 is China's first supercomputer with a maximum range of 2.5 petaFLOPS. (A petaFLOP is a computing speed equal to one thousand million million floating-point operations per second.)

Tianhe-1 held the number one spot in the Top500 rankings of the world's top supercomputers, the first time a Chinese system topped the list.

Yan said the center has recently unveiled their prototype of a next-generation exascale supercomputer, Tianhe-3, which can perform a billion billion calculations per second – the threshold for the coveted “exascale” status.

The final version of Tianhe-3 is expected to become operational by 2020. Yan said Tianhe-3 will use the Phytium CPU chip and be based on the Kylin operating system, both of which are developed by Tianjin-based domestic tech firms.

The supercomputer will be open for use by governments, research institutions and companies in the country, Yan said, adding that its massive computing power can be used in such projects as scanning the Earth for oil, creating artificial nuclear fusion, and building airplanes and maritime equipment.

The supercomputer is expected to be the driving force of the country's innovation in the computer sector and will play an important role in the nation's information security.

The ZTE crisis has exposed the weakness of Chinese tech firms in the field of chip technology. However, Yan believes that the US-China trade dispute is beneficial for the country's tech sector in the long run.

"When the market is open, [Chinese] enterprises tend to rely too much on [foreign technology]," he said. "We need some 'non-economic' force in order to drive domestic companies to develop core [technologies]."

He cited the Chinese-developed Phytium CPU chip as an example. After the US ban on the chip exports, sales of the chip have increased by about ten times.

Generally speaking, both domestic and foreign chips are produced by original equipment manufacturers such as Foxconn.

As such, the cost is quite similar, but in the application of supercomputing chips, Yan admits that China still lags behind the US.

In view of this technology gap, he said it is necessary for China to face reality and catch up with the technology without relying on others.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 13

Translation by Ben Ng with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal