In the computer room of the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin, rows of tidy black cabinets work on humanity’s greatest scientific questions, ranging from the evolution of the universe to modeling complex protein structures for discovery of drugs.
The machine, called Tianhe-1, is named after the river of stars in the night sky that makes up the Milky Way. For centuries, Tianhe has been a source of inspiration and exploration of Chinese culture, but in Tianjin it is now synonymous with innovation.
The instrument is China’s first petascale supercomputer capable of performing an average of more than 2.5 quadrillion operations per second. It can handle more than 1,400 computing tasks simultaneously, and about 1,000 research groups use the supercomputer every day, said Meng Xiangfei, the creator of Tianhe.
Meng and his colleagues are currently building the prototype of China’s next-generation exascale supercomputer called Tianhe-3 that can perform over a quintillion operations per second, which will be orders of magnitude more powerful than Tianhe-1.
About 15 years ago, Meng did not believe that China could independently develop a supercomputer, let alone become a global supercomputing powerhouse.
According to the latest edition of the Top500 in June, a list of the fastest supercomputers in the world, China has 173 such systems, followed by the United States with 128. The current most powerful supercomputer in China is the Sunway TaihuLight, which is ranked sixth in the world.
Meng, 43, is now scientific director of the application and research department of the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin. Since joining the Chinese Communist Party about 20 years ago, Meng has devoted himself to the development of Chinese supercomputers.
“There is no end to innovation, and it is a great honor to be a member of the Party and to see our work appreciated by the nation,” he said.
In 2009, China planned to build its first supercomputing center in Tianjin. “We had nothing to work with at the time. Our office was not finished. There were only white walls and a concrete floor, even the electrical wires were hanging out in the open,” said Meng said. “We had to start the preparation and planning for the center in our employees’ dormitory.”
During these difficult times, Meng and his team worked as scientists and construction workers. They renovated the computer room, installed the electrical wires and transported the computer cabinets, each weighing more than a metric ton, to their appropriate locations.
They also crawled under cabinets to install cables for hours in an ambient temperature of almost 40 C.
After building the machine, Meng and his colleagues needed to ensure that the new supercomputer could maintain stable performance at all times. They calibrated the machine during the day and at night they slept on the cardboard shipping boxes that came with the cabinets.
After seven months of hard work, Tianhe-1 was launched in October 2010 and was recognized as the world’s fastest supercomputer from November 2010 to June 2011. It was the first time that a Chinese supercomputer reached the top of the Top 500 list.
But skepticism and doubts quickly followed, with some experts claiming that Tianhe-1 was just a “giant gaming platform” and had no real industrial applications.
These comments infuriated Meng, who vowed to improve the machine’s application and software compatibility. “Only when the machine has useful applications can China consolidate its position in the global supercomputing industry,” he said.
At the time, Tianhe-1 could not run research software widely used to develop new pharmaceuticals, so Meng spent more than 20 sleepless days optimizing hundreds of thousands of lines of code to solve the problem. This laid the foundation for the large-scale application of the supercomputer in drug discovery and design.
“I always tell my teammates that every effort we put in will benefit our country in the end,” Meng said. His team then developed the technology for processing high-definition images used for oil and gas geological research, eliminating the need for China to spend millions of yuan to rent supercomputer computing capacity from the United States. and in Europe.
Tianhe-1 is now being used in a wide range of fields, including aerospace technology, weather forecasting, nuclear fusion and fighting COVID-19 through drug screening and cloud diagnostics, Meng said. Since its inception, the instrument has led to more than 4,000 scientific and technological breakthroughs.
“It is truly an instrument of national significance that culminates generations of hard work by Chinese scientists and engineers,” Meng said.
“As we push the frontiers of science, we as CPC members must be courageous, innovative and contribute more to our nation’s self-sufficiency in science and technology.”