South Korea’s Striking, Stepped-Up Supercomputing Strategy

With neighbors China and Japan hosting top-tier high performance computing systems, Korea wants to put more skin in the supercomputing game with extended investments over the next five years.

According to a report this morning from a business newspaper inside the country, a recent “Ultra-High Performance Computing Development Forum” yielded news that a feasibility study has been commissioned to usher in a new wave of Korean supercomputers under the SuperIT Korean 2020 initiative.

In a quote given by a spokesperson for the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Korea will be well served by developing some of their own technologies for efficient extreme-scale computing. As he told Business Korea, “Tianhe-2, the fastest supercomputer, consumes as much power as that needed for operating two nuclear power plants. As our nation is a latecomer, the odds will be in our favor if we start to approach the problem of power consumption first, for which we have a competitive advantage, and then focus on the development of a supercomputer capable of processing other applications, different from existing ones.”

These comments are interesting on a number of fronts. First, that South Korea’s ambitions, at least as gauged by the statement, are centered around competitive advantage, particularly with China and it’s #1 Tianhe-2 machine. Second, this is a bit of an exaggeration of the power consumed by Tianhe-2, but the spokesperson is bent on the efficiency angle.

Further, the idea that South Korea is most interested in efficiency in front of pure floating point capability is noteworthy, especially considering the significant weight of Samsung, which is based in South Korea and operates its own Top 500 class supercomputers. Much of Samsung’s R&D business is centered around efficiency at the micro-level given their emphasis on consumer mobile devices, but they do have the capability to make processors for low-power supercomputers—something that is yet again gaining momentum with ARM and other ultra-efficient supercomputing options.

“We can decrease the gap with major advanced countries in development of original technology, since it is possible for new technology to cultivate new markets and its application to new areas.”

The takeaway is that South Korea is relatively well-positioned from both an R&D and production standpoint to make waves in HPC over the next few years—an assumption we hope to confirm during an upcoming HPC in Asia session by country next week at ISC in Frankfurt (where, by the way, the next Top 500 list will emerge).

South Korea is already home to a striking number of systems on the Top 500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers. Although these machines are not generally large enough to draw great publicity (the highest performing system as ranked through the LINPACK benchmark is at #148) the power in numbers is worth noting, at least for a country its size in terms of landmass (its population is dense). There are nine supercomputers from South Korea, as seen below. As you will likely notice, the most powerful of these are for weather modeling and forecasting as well as regional ISPs.

Data Center

While nine might sound like many to some, consider that Australia and Russia each have nine machines on the Top 500, and Canada, despite its size and population has only six. To be fair, there are plenty of reasons for the disparity, including the fact that not every center with a big cluster runs the benchmark for Top 500 and for others, supercomputing is not a huge priority. On the other hand too, consider that France has over 30 systems, Germany is right on its heels with 26 and the U.S. has over 230 of the listings.

The one site that might sound more familiar over time, for those who follow Top 500 supercomputers, is the #201 slot where KISTI sits with its (very unique to the rest of the list) Sun Blade system—there’s a term many haven’t heard in a while). In addition to Samsung, this is where much of the country’s computer science braintrust is seated—and where its next “ultra-scale” supercomputing might rest as well.

Korean companies using HPC were in the news here at The Next Platform just recently with the announcement of Hyundai using the #2 Titan supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Lab for key material sciences breakthroughs. One might suspect that the company is taking notes about what systems and software are performing best—and passing those up the chain inside South Korea to lend to better decision-making about what role HPC might play in industrial, as well as research competitiveness.

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