x86 Says Goodbye to IBM. Hello Inspur?

In this special report from Scientific Computing World, Tom Wilkie reports that Chinese technology and international ambitions were on display at ISC’14 in Leipzig last week.

TomWilkie_150pxNot content with building the world’s fastest supercomputer, China has now set its sights on the global export market for high-performance computing. Both Inspur, which made the current fastest machine, the Tianhe-2, and another Chinese company Sugon, were marketing their expertise vigorously at the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC’14) in Leipzig at the end of June.

Inspur used the event to launch an ambitious expansion program that it is calling ‘I2I’. The acronym stands for ‘IBM to Inspur’, and it encapsulates the company’s aim to replace IBM as the reliable provider of servers and supercomputers based on the standard x86 processor chip architecture.

In an interview with Scientific Computing World at ISC’14, Inspur’s Chief Scientist, Qing Ji, said that the company expected to have more than 100 business partners internationally by the end of this year, all working with Inspur to market and distribute its products. “We have received lots of emails. Lots of companies want to join us. The reaction from the global market is pretty good,” she said.

China’s expansion into international markets was predicted in this column a year ago, as part of Scientific Computing World’s report from last year’s ISC: ‘Some observers believe that Chinese plans are not confined to the highest performance machines but that it could soon be exporting its own computers to countries such as Brazil and India, supplanting US and European suppliers.’ Although that report raised the possibility that Chinese processor technology would also be part of the export offering, there is as yet no sign of processors developed within China being part of any export drive.

Sugon, also known as the Dawning Information Industry Company, came to international prominence in 2010 when its Nebulae system headed the Top500 list of the world’s fastest computers. At the International Supercomputing Conference 2014, it was promoting what it described as ‘personal HPC’. Pride of place went to a demonstration of China’s first liquid-cooled supercomputer technology. An immersion system in concept, it uses working fluid provided by 3M, with a boiling point of 50 C, so that coolant closest to the processor changes phase, is cycled to a condenser, and circulated back to the system. In most parts of China, only passive cooling techniques are then required to reject the waste heat to the environment.

According to Shen Weidong, general manager of the company’s data center department: “The power consumption of data centres is a challenge. We have a lot of products with air-cooled servers in a cold aisle/hot aisle arrangement, but while that can lower the power usage effectiveness (PuE) to 1.6, for further lowering of the PuE liquid cooling is the only way.” In China, lack of power is a constraint in many areas, he continued, and in Beijing it was no longer possible to build data centres due to power restrictions. At the present moment, the company was selling its technology only within China but it did have a potential customer overseas, he said.

Inspur’s international ambitions are explicit: it “aims to be the first and best choice for HPC customers and business partners.” Furthermore, the documentation explaining its plan stresses that the “I2I” program offers “a long-term commitment to HPC customers and business partners globally, while IBM has decided to give up the x86 server business.”

In the course of her interview, Dr Qing Ji stressed that, having built both Tianhe 1 and 2: “We have a relatively rich experience of designing and deploying supercomputers’. But that was not all, she added, Inspur has ‘a comprehensive family of servers. We are the only company in China that can provide all these servers.”

But she believes that the attractiveness of Inspur’s offering goes beyond the technical and engineering competence to include high-quality service to customers. ‘We have a professional service team with more than 20 PhDs,’ she continued. The company is therefore be able to fine tune users’ applications and, although the headline story is that Inspur wants to take over from IBM in the x86 sector, Dr Ji stressed that because many customers already have hybrid/GPU machines, Inspur has the expertise to assist them in porting them to hybrid systems, including GPUs and Intel’s Xeon Phi coprocessors.

Inspur has opened five international business centres covering the Asia Pacific (APAC) region, the Middle East, South America, and Europe. Dr Ji thinks there is pent-up demand in APAC and that initially the bulk of the activity will be there. If only for reasons of geographical proximity, it will be easier to carry out face to face training, for example, and customers will be able to visit both Inspur and the supercomputer centre itself. The company will, she said, provide ‘a private log-in, so that they can try out our product and software.’

The company’s strategy is to work with business partners that have HPC related experience, a relatively good representation in their local market, and that are willing to grow with Inspur. “We hope we can help middle level partners grow into big ones,” she said.

This story appears here as part of a cross-publishing agreement with Scientific Computing World.

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