Supercomputers: Time India Turns Its ‘SuperFLOPs’ Into ‘PetaFLOPs’
What is supercomputing and how can a more focussed approach towards supercomputers help India.
: Prashant Chauhan
Different people have different perceptions of supercomputers. Some know of the general concept while others have a distinct image in their mind – often based on movies like Space Odyssey, Transcendence and, in some cases, even Koi Mil Gaya!
A supercomputer, as the name suggests, is a jacked-up version of a personal computer used for tasks deemed too complicated for a normal PC – like quantum mechanics, weather forecasting, climate research, oil and gas exploration, molecular modeling, space exploration, tracing missile trajectories, the detonation of nuclear weapons and so on.
Remember the scientific breakthrough of rendering an actual photograph of a supermassive black hole? That wouldn't have been possible without the computational power of a specialised supercomputer.
What is a Supercomputer
While a personal computer works on a single processor, a supercomputer uses multiple processors at the same time. Think hundreds of computers joining forces to compute in parallel.
For example, the latest Intel Core i9 Extreme Edition processor, designed for desktop computers, has 18 cores and is capable of one trillion floating point operations per second (ie, 1 teraFLOP) – that is as fast as a supercomputer from 1998.
Modern supercomputers use similar chips, but instead of a few processors, they have tens of thousands. In short, what distinguishes a supercomputer is its scale.
Today’s fastest supercomputer, SUMMIT, uses 36,000 on-board processors and can perform about 200 quadrillion calculations per second. What a normal computer will do in 30 years, the SUMMIT can do in an hour.
But SUMMIT is no lightweight. It takes up as much space as two full basketball courts and uses 200 miles of cable. Its cooling system uses 4,000 gallons of water per minute and consumes enough power to run 8,000 homes!
Supercomputing in India
Supercomputing in India started late in the 1980s after the US denied import of its supercomputers to India due to an arms embargo. The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) was then established for achieving 'self-sufficiency' in supercomputing.
The first Indian supercomputer was PARAM 8000, unveiled in 1991 by the CDAC under Dr Vijay Bhatkar’s leadership. It had 64 CPUs.
In 2015, India launched the National Supercomputing Mission (NSM) with an aim to install 70 supercomputers. It is a Rs 4500 crore, seven-year-long programme.
However, only 10 percent of its total budget had been released till 2018. Even experts have said that limited funding is the biggest crutch for the technology in India.
The Ministry of Earth Sciences, meanwhile, has announced a Rs 1,500 crore investment for two new supercomputers. This will take the total number of supercomputers in India to 13.
Race With China and US
Currently, India possesses just 11 supercomputers. This figure is dwarfed by China's 220 and the US' 116. The China-US race to become a supercomputing superpower is fuelled by billions of dollars worth of investments towards infrastructure and human resources.
While India has about 2,80,000 people working in supercomputing, China has roughly 1.7 million persons while the US employs 1.3 million people.
From its 2007 number of 13, China has now grown to 220 supercomputers. Its unwavering focus on supercomputing, that started as early as 2002, has enabled it to envision and enforce an AI-enabled future – powering massive surveillance operations and country-wide resource management programmes.
All of China's supercomputers also feature in the 'Top 500' list of supercomputers in the world. India, despite being in the supercomputer race for three decades, can boast of just three.
Future of Supercomputing in India: From 'Superflop' to Petaflops
In a vast country like India, with a burgeoning online population, supercomputing holds the key to resolve several of the country's persistent problems.
From weather and climate mapping to aid the majority of population engaged in agriculture, to backing its ambition of installing a pan-India facial recognition system, supercomputing is the way forward.
It will also help foster research in medicine, gene-editing and space exploration.
Given that data is the new oil, India would do well to wake up to the challenge of developing indigenous supercomputers that can reduce its dependency on imports, give it a foothold against China & US and, ultimately, help turn its supercomputing 'SUPERFLOPs' into 'PETAFLOPS.'
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