Interview with S. Ramakrishnan, Director-General, C-DAC.
S. RAMAKRISHNAN has been at the helm of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) since late 2003. As the institution enters its twentieth year, the Director-General spoke to Frontline about its past achievements and its road map for the future.
C-DAC will soon complete two decades. You have guided the institution since the end of 2003 and have presided over a major consolidation effort when the National Centre for Software Technology, the Centre for Electronic Design and Technology (Mohali) and all units of the erstwhile Electronics Research and Development Centre were absorbed into the C-DAC family. Do you see these units well integrated into one parent organisation and has this changed the role and charter of C-DAC in any manner?
Our effort within the organisation to fuse together, over the last four-plus years, has been slow but steady - and it has not been easy at all times. To be frank, it has been one of the biggest challenges I have faced in my professional career, although it has been most rewarding at the end. But, the "melting pot syndrome" is happening... has happened to a large extent. Joint work, sharing of experiences, collaboration and learning the best practices of each other, and the pan-Indian outlook has made all C-DACians happier. Each stream has brought a different ethos, much of which is getting adopted across the organisation and we are richer as a result. From a single or two-products technology organisation, we have recognised the broader portfolio that our larger organisational set-up has brought under the same umbrella. By defining a common approach or methodology on how we would build the concept of a premier R&D [research and development] lab (from research to deployment or delivery) and identifying opportunities for linkages across the disciplines, we are working on a medium- to long-term plan.
Since its inception, C-DAC has harnessed its twin strengths in high performance computing and Indian language computing, besides branching out into a few other areas. Will this remain the core competence of C-DAC or do you see the need for the Centre to "re-invent" itself in response to the changing technological scenario as well as evolving national priorities?
We see work from two perspectives - addressing "enabling technologies" and putting in place "end-to-end solutions". The former is more like technology or Intellectual Property (IP) - or a platform or product issue. One has to specialise and constantly compete. There are multiplier benefits, and the end-users of these can be in many sectors. It takes a long time and a lot of effort. We would like to define our primary goal to be this. High Performance Computing, Grid Computing, Language technologies, Professional Electronics, Software Technologies, Cyber-Security are some broad areas. Here we work with industry and markets for IP or technology transfer.
The second perspective is to address the needs of specific domains through end-to-end solutions. For various reasons, we selectively build domain expertise and solutions or undertake projects. Examples of such domains include science and engineering, health, industry, e-governance, education and training - to name a few. For large-scale deployment, we increasingly look for partners. We are progressively optimising our energy and efforts to maintain leadership in chosen areas, even as technology, user needs or markets, industry and choice is evolving. It is a process rather than a one-time exercise.
Many of C-DAC's recent successes have centred around applications that were meaningful in the Indian context but were possibly not techno-commercially attractive for private agencies to address. I am thinking of C-DAC's work for the police and security services; its initiatives in tele-medicine and some of its Indian language technologies for e-governance applications. Do you see the organisation continue to underwrite the development of what are probably commercially unviable technologies?
Yes. But we don't see it as under-writing, per se. One can always see these as smart forward thinking of business models. When "bottom-of-the-pyramid" in emerging economies is seen today as a sensible step, isn't it most appropriate that we take a leadership role, working here in India, especially at a time when market opportunities for these can be expected to emerge fast sooner or later? It is equally true with security applications where trust in a technology or a solution is paramount even while its significance is given - and demand is growing globally for obvious reasons. Addressing "public good" needs and "market demand" are not to be seen as orthogonal. In fact, the two are often mutually re-enforcing.
Some of C-DAC's newer releases have proved to be very popular - like the Ayusoft product in Ayurveda or the CD-based Indian language resources. Is this a pointer to how C-DAC may subtly transform into a more market-savvy player? And can one expect C-DAC's next decade to be a period of more market-oriented development - particularly since it commands a lot of IP that may be ripe for `exploitation' in the best sense of the term?
There is a lot of emphasis these days in India, even among R&D labs and academia, to create IP and monetise it, or to market technologies or products in different ways including incubation of start-ups and public-private-partnerships. C-DAC has had good experience and success stories in many cases, and we would continue to institutionalise this process. I would even say we are uniquely positioned to do so in many cases. In the long run, it can serve as an incentive to our people and they will feel motivated to see their work making significant contributions. In short, yes, in the future we would like to be more market-oriented and carry forward high-quality research and technology development towards markets and monetisation. We are moving in that direction.
Finally, if you were asked to name the single biggest transformation that C-DAC has brought in India in the first two decades of its existence, what would that be? And could you hazard a guess on what might turn out to be the biggest contribution it could make in the next two decades?
I would summarise the legacy of our first two decades, until now, as a belief in "can do it" in the technology space in India.
These have often been under trying circumstances where there was hardly any indigenous hardware technology industry or mature markets or even standards in many cases. I refer to supercomputing, language computing and professional electronics as examples. Besides, we have created the product eco-system in R&D in many cases. In the process, we have learnt the value of indigenous R&D and seen what a motivated team, when assembled, given missions and freedom, can accomplish.
In the next 20 years, we will adopt a new paradigm - to be not a follower, but a leader with a new way of looking at oneself, one's role as an R&D lab... . and reaching out to the market with suitable twin-track business and innovation models.