Towards teraflops

Print edition : April 11, 1998

PARAM 10000, unveiled last fortnight in Pune, is a message to the developed world that India has the capability to meet its own needs in high-performance computing.

'PARAM' is a Sanskrit word meaning 'supreme'. It is also a handy acronym for parallel machine. A fortuitous coincidence, for Param is the name given to what is arguably India's most powerful number cruncher - a computing platform that divides a large job into manageable chunks and then assigns them to a number of processors working in parallel fashion to achieve very high speeds of operation. On Gudi Padwa, the Maharashtrian New Year's Day, which fell on March 28 this year, the Pune-based Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) unveiled "Param 10000", marking the culmination of its decade-long mission to take India into the tiny club of nations which build their own supercomputers.

The new machine, which is Asia's second largest supercomputer, is what scientists call a 100-gigaflop machine - which means that it can perform 100,000,000,000 (100 billion) flops or floating point operations (steps in complex mathematical calculations) a second at peak performance level. This brings India close to achieving in the near future what researchers the world over have recognised as the ultimate target - a teraflop computer, which is approximately 10 times faster than Param 10000.

"This technological capability exists only in the U.S. and Japan," C-DAC's Executive Director Dr. Vijay P. Bhatkar said. "Europe launched a consortium effort but they have not come out with a teraflop machine. The delivery of our 100 gigaflops machine and its scalability to the teraflops range have important connotations for India."

Param 10000, the 100 GF supercomputer unveiled by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing.-DEVIPRASAD C. RAO

The core areas of application of Param include long-range numerical weather forecasting by which routine weather predictions can be made a week or more in advance; the complex processing of seismic data for oil prospecting; the modelling of satellite launch vehicles and missiles; and the processing of voluminous amounts of remote sensing data; and new technologies such as geographic information services.

At the beginning of its second-generation Param mission in 1993, C-DAC had decided to use to the extent possible easily available industry-standard chips at the heart of the machine's parallel computers, what it calls its "Open Frame" system. The new Param, for example, exploits the zippy processing speed of the internationally used UltraSparc-II chip, which clocks in 300,000,000 cycles per second (300 Megahertz) at all of its 48 parallel nodes. The era of single processor proprietory chips is over, scientists at C-DAC feel. And any machine designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of global users needs to have globally available hardware under its hood.

The Param programme is one of the five national initiatives launched in the mid-1980s - each a time-bound mission to deliver a supercomputer in the gigaflops range. The others are the country's first parallel computer, Flosolver, designed by the Bangalore-based National Aerospace Laboratory in 1986; Anupam designed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai in 1992 for applications in nuclear research; PACE (Processor for Aerodynamic Computations and Evaluation), developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), mainly for inhouse use in computation-heavy applications such as the aerodynamic modelling of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA); and CHIPPS (C-DOT's High Performance Parallel Processor), developed by the Centre for Development of Telematics in Bangalore for weather forecasting and radio telemetry applications.

Efforts by both BARC and the DRDO to exploit commercially their machines have met with little success; both managed to sell the few units assembled largely within the inhouse market of sister laboratories.

According to J. Srihari Raju, a seasoned industry watcher: "High-performance computing is no doubt of strategic importance; but it is also important to make it an exercise in utility, not futility, beyond the laboratory floors. Look at the incremental number-crunching coming on to the desktop computer: the space for special super duper machines has, as a result, narrowed if not altogether vanished." Raju wonders: "The question is, can 'our' Param do some 'push over' within that segment. The rest is just patriotism."

Param 10000 has been demonstrated in Moscow's Institute for Computer Aided Design (ICAD) and a Russian delegation is due to visit Pune to explore the possibility of procuring the machine. Param's operating system is dubbed "Paras", after the mythical stone which turned into gold.

Param 10000 is today the centre piece of the new National Param Supercomputing Facility (NPSF), created jointly by the C-DAC and the Science and Technololgy Park of Pune University. The machine will soon be accessible to researchers all over the country through the Internet. It will certainly play the role as a potent new tool for indigenous development across a wide and computation-intense spectrum of applications.

And if C-DAC also succeeds in its bid to be a global supplier of supercomputers, then its small group of computer researchers will have truly struck gold.

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