Experts are reporting that China will announce tomorrow that it's built the world's first 100 petaFLOPS computer - an incredibly powerful supercomputer capable of processing a quadrillion floating point operations per second (FLOPS). (Update 23 June 2016: They officially achieved 93 petaFLOPS!)
To put that into perspective, Apple's latest Mac Pro tower has up to 7 teraFLOPS of performance. This rumoured new computer would be able to process a mind-blowing 1,000 teraFLOPS each second. And it's a computing milestone the US government has reportedly worked hard to stop China from reaching.
If you haven't heard much about the supercomputer race so far, here's what you need to know. Back in April last year, the US State Department set up an embargo that blocked the sales of Intel Xeon and Xeon Phi processors to Chinese institutions - most notably the National University for Defence Technologies (NUDT), which is home to the Tianhe-2 supercomputer, the most powerful supercomputer in the world since 2013, with a sustained performance of 33.86 petaFLOPS.
Impressively, Tianhe-2 isn't even fully built yet, and experts speculated that the US's sales block was to prevent the Chinese government from improving the supercomputer further.
But instead of slowing down performance, China has since spent all the money it had budgeted for foreign superprocessors on the development of its own Alpha and ARM superprocessors.
"In terms of funds, NUDT planned to buy 32,000 more Xeon processors ... and 48,000 more Xeon Phi co-processors," reports Theo Valich for VR World. "We’ve been hearing that over US$500 million was invested in bringing the Chinese silicon from a prototype phase to production-grade level."
All that investment has allowed Chinese engineers to upgrade Tianhe-2 and they'll be announcing the new performance tomorrow on June 20 at the 2016 International Supercomputing Conference in Germany.
Right now, the idea that they'll announce the 100 petaFLOPS milestone is purely speculative, so let's not all get too excited just yet. But there are some good indications that it's about to happen.
For starters, Tianhe-2 was always intended to reach 100 petaFLOPS at full capacity - and at the Supercomputing Frontiers Conference in Singapore back in March, NUDT engineers announced that it's now fully developed (that's a pretty big clue right there).
Secondly, based on the amount of investment into local processors, it makes sense that they should have now hit their goal. Tianhe-2 already had 32,000 Intel Xeon processors and 48,000 Intel Xeon Phi co-processors, giving it peak performance of 54.9 petaFLOPS and a sustained performance of 33.86 as of 2013, according to the internationally recognised Linpack benchmark.
So what's changed now? Valich explains:
"The new Tianhe-2 represents a hybrid design, featuring two new additions, as the old Xeon Phi cards are being phased out. Phytium Technologies recently delivered their 'Mars' processors in the form of PCI Express cards that replaced the Xeon Phi cards, and motherboards to upgrade the system.
Given that there are 48,000 add-in boards installed, the new 64-core design enables the system to reach its original performance targets. With the three million new ARM cores inside the Tianhe-2, its estimated [peak] performance in the Linpack benchmark should exceed 100 petaFLOPS."
Tl;dr: Unless something's gone really wrong, China should have hit the 100 petaFLOPS milestone - all without the help of any new Intel chips from the US.
What does that mean for those of us who don't work in supercomputing? Quite a lot, actually, seeing as supercomputers provide such enormous benefits in so many fields. Basically, anything that our regular computers can do, supercomputers can do thousands of times faster.
And that will give China a competitive edge in fields such as weather forecasting, oil and gas exploration, drug development, physical simulations, engineering... pretty much anything you need a computer for, China will now be able to do better than anyone else in the world.
And 100 petaFLOPS isn't the end. "Should Tianhe-2 reach its full deployment of 32,000 Xeons, 32,000 ShenWei processor, and 96,000 Phytium accelerator cards, we might see an upgrade in the range of 200-300 PFLOPS - if the building can withstand the thermal and power challenges associated with it," reports Valich.
In fact, there are rumours that China will actually be announcing not one, but two 100 petaFLOPS computers this year.
Update 23 June 2016: The Chinese announcement went ahead as planned - achieving 93 petaFLOPS of performance. Not quite the 100 petaFLOPS they were aiming for, but still multiple times better than anything else out there. Welcome to the future of supercomputers.