U.S. beats China, Japan to regain top supercomputer spot

The United States has reclaimed the No. 1 spot on a list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, following falls to Japan and then China in a domain it had dominated for decades. Supercomputer mettle is an indicator of a nation’s economic and military prowess, according to researchers.

Sequoia, a brand new IBM machine, came in at 16.32 sustained petaflops, or quadrillion operations per second, on the supercomputing industry’s Top 500 list, the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration announced on Monday. The agency, which maintains the system at California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is responsible for safeguarding the U.S. nuclear stockpile. The full list was expected to be revealed later in the day.

The Chinese Tianhe-1A system rose above America and Japan for the first time in November 2010 during the biannual competition. It placed second after Japan’s 10.51 petaflop K Computer last November, while Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Jaguar computer in Tennessee came in third at 1.75 petaflops.

The 96-rack Sequoia will model the aging of the nuclear stockpile in an unprecedented level of detail, both in support of nonproliferation activities and extending the life of certain weapons systems, according to Energy officials. The United States stopped nuclear explosive testing about 20 years ago.

“The underlying computing capabilities it provides give us increased confidence in the nation’s nuclear deterrent as the weapons stockpile changes under treaty agreements,” NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said in a statement. “Sequoia also represents continued American leadership in high performance computing.”

But obviously that leadership was interrupted and could be lost again, say experts.

As Newsweek’s Dan Lyons noted in November 2011, “whoever holds the lead in the field gains huge economic and military advantages.”

Wu Feng, a professor of computer science at Virginia Tech, told the publication, “I would almost guarantee that in five years [China] will have their cyber-infrastructure connected” into a single giant computer brain. “They could create a distributed supercomputer that is 100 times faster than anything we have in the United States," Feng said.

The United States, however, may have an ace up its sleeve -- a classified Defense Department system for hacking into secret codes.

James Bamford reports in Wired that the National Security Agency, a U.S. military component that specializes in cyberspying, “has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed.”

“Cryptanalysis requires two major ingredients: super-fast computers to conduct brute-force attacks on encrypted messages and a massive number of those messages for the computers to analyze,” he writes. “The more messages from a given target, the more likely it is for the computers to detect telltale patterns.”

With the help of Oak Ridge lab, NSA is set on reaching exaflop speed, one quintillion operations per second by 2018, and eventually zettaflop (10 exponent 21) and yottaflop (10 exponent 24), according to Wired.

Back in unclassified territory: Sequoia is anticipated to offer a better understanding of the behavior of nuclear materials at extreme pressures and temperatures, Energy officials said.

Energy, Lawrence Livermore and IBM have developed three No. 1-ranked computer systems, including ASCI White, Blue Gene/L and now Sequoia.