A global race is under way to reach the next milestone in the performance of supercomputers, many times faster than today’s most powerful machines.

And beyond the customary rivalry in the field between the United States and Japan there is a new entrant, China, eager to showcase its arrival as an economic powerhouse.

The new supercomputers will not be in use until the end of the decade at the earliest, but they are increasingly being viewed as crucial investments for progress in science, advanced technologies and national security.

Once the exclusive territory of nuclear-weapons designers and code breakers, ultrafast machines are increasingly being used in everyday product design. Procter & Gamble used a supercomputer to study the airflow over its Pringles potato chips to help stop them from fluttering off the company’s assembly lines.

Today, driven by advances in so-called parallel computing – with software making it possible to lash together arrays of tens and even hundreds of thousands of processors – the speed of future supercomputers is limited only by cost, adequate electricity and the ability to cool the systems, which now sprawl over thousands of square feet.

China has 19 supercomputers ranked among the 500 fastest machines, and recent reports in Chinese newspapers stressed the importance of developing high-performance computing technology not dependent on the United States.

“It’s becoming an issue of national pride,” said Steve Wallach, a supercomputer designer who is a vice president at Chiaro Networks, a technology provider for high-performance computing. “That’s where the Japanese are coming from, and now the Chinese want to be viewed as a tier-one country in every respect.”

More here.