World's Fastest Supercomputer
China has built the world's fastest supercomputer. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

In 2001, China had no presence on the list of the top 500 supercomputers in the world. Today, the world's most populous country has the most supercomputers on the list, including the world's fastest — and for the first time ever it no longer relies on chips made by U.S. companies.

The Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer based at the state-funded Chinese Supercomputing Center in the city of Wuxi, Jiangsu province, a two-hour drive from Shanghai. China already held the top spot on the list of fastest supercomputers with the Tianhe-2, but that featured processors built by Intel, a U.S. company.

However, a chip built by the Shanghai High Performance IC Design Center called SW26010 is capable of achieving 125.4 petaflops (Pflop/s). That means it can carry out more than 125 quintillion calculations per second. The SW26010 is comprised of more than 10 million processing cores, and to put its performance in context, Tianhe-2 topped the list in 2015 with a performance of 33.86 Pflops/s.

“As the first number one system of China that is completely based on homegrown processors, the Sunway TaihuLight system demonstrates the significant progress that China has made in the domain of designing and manufacturing large-scale computation systems,” Guangwen Yang, director of the Chinese Supercomputing Center, told TOP500 News.

The supercomputer will be used for research and engineering work in areas such as climate, weather and earth systems modeling, life science research, advanced manufacturing and data analytics.

The list of the world's fastest 500 supercomputers is compiled by research organization TOP500, and the list this year shows that for the first time China has more supercomputers (167) on the list than the U.S. (165), with Japan a distant third with just 29.

So how has China gone from supercomputer nobody to powerhouse in such a short time?

1. China's Government

China's government wants to lessen (and where possible eradicate) the dependence on overseas technology, specifically technology designed and built in the U.S. To do this, it has invested heavily in research and development such as the National Supercomputing Center to develop homegrown solutions.

According to Wall Street research firm Sanford C. Bernstein, the country buys half of all the semiconductors produced in the world, but it doesn't have a single domestic chipmaker among the world's biggest. For this reason, China's government has told local media that it will pledge 1 trillion yuan ($152 billion) to help create a Chinese chip industry by 2025.

The Sunway TaihuLight is a major milestone on the road to creating this industry.

2. U.S. Embargo

In addition to being spurred by its own government, the Chinese technology industry was given a push by the U.S. government, too. In April 2015, the U.S. blocked high-end processors, such as Intel's Xeon Phi chips, from being sold to a number of Chinese supercomputing centers. The U.S. Department of Commerce never publicly said why the embargo was in place, but the rules state certain items can be blocked if there is "a significant risk of being or becoming involved in activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States."

The move precipitated a more concerted effort in China to develop and manufacture such chips domestically.

3. Money

While the market for supercomputing chips is not huge, there is a huge market for computer chips in general, and by showing that it can produce processors capable of matching, and beating, those on offer from Intel and IBM, China is now in a position to begin marketing its homegrown solutions to server manufacturers and data centers — a market that is currently dominated by Intel.

Companies like Intel and Qualcomm know just how important the Chinese market is and are aware of the risks a well-funded domestic chipmaker could have on their bottom lines. To that end both companies have invested heavily in China, partnering with local companies to bring manufacturing to the country.