TOKYO -- Fujitsu has decided to team up with U.K. chip design company ARM Holdings to develop the successor to Japan's K supercomputer, signaling a departure from its emphasis on employing proprietary technologies.
The next-generation machine is being developed by Fujitsu and the government-backed Riken research institute, with the help of 130 billion yen ($1.24 billion) in government funding. Completion is scheduled for 2020.
Under the partnership unveiled Monday at a supercomputing conference being held in Frankfurt, Germany, Fujitsu will use central processing units designed by ARM, whose products are increasingly becoming a de-facto global standard.
Fujitsu has taken charge of the K's CPU design, its self-reliant streak stemming in part from supercomputer technology's importance to Japan's national pride. Hopes are high that the machine will support efforts in weather simulation, drug discovery, artificial intelligence development and other fields. But only software developed by Fujitsu or other K computer users can be run on the machine, hindering commercial application.
Adopting ARM's processor designs would make the K readily compatible with software developed by companies and researchers worldwide. Fujitsu, for its part, insists that despite this prospect the company will not lose its originality in how the circuit is drawn.
How efficiently computational labor is divided among a supercomputer's several hundred thousand to several million processors is what sets it apart. Fujitsu has strength in communication speeds among various processing units, and this will let it "remain sufficiently competitive," said Naoki Shinjo of the company's technical computing division.
Fujitsu's strategy shift is likely aimed at avoiding the harmful overspecialization that could find use only in a small market and result in a lack of compatibility for broader applications.
Unless the Japanese company can continue to innovate, however, it could begin to lose relevance since ARM's processor designs can be used not only by Fujitsu but also other companies willing to pay.
ARM is expected to begin designing core supercomputer parts for companies in emerging nations.
Threats are already approaching from the Asian continent. Chinese supercomputers combining enormous numbers of processors have surged to the Nos. 1 and 2 spots worldwide in terms of computational speed. Machines using similar technology are expected to hit the market soon.
Japanese companies are no strangers to the pain that can result when a universal standard sweeps across an industry. U.S. companies' dominance of the personal computer operating system and CPU markets, for example, made it difficult for Japanese players to stand out. Manufacturers in emerging nations surged into the hardware field as standard technology spread, sidelining Japanese competitors.
Whether Japan's supercomputers can avoid the fate of the country's PC industry rests on companies' ability to continue developing unique technology on top of a set of universal parts. If not, Europe and the U.S. could once again dominate the design field, with China taking charge of manufacturing, leaving little room for anyone else.