The Supercomputer Commodity

DQW Bureau
04 Oct 2007
New Update


Two decades ago, India's Mausam Bhawan installed its first

supercomputer. The Cray X-MP/14 was a giant, and symbolic of the times:

proprietary design, own processors, specialized OS. The X-MP/14 crossed a GFLOPS,

or a billion floating point operations per second, and cost tens of crores.

Seymour Cray was an icon-he had designed the first

supercomputers in the 1960s at Control Data Corp, and CDC led the market until

Cray left to form his own company. Cray Research held the top spot in

supercomputing in the 1980s.

A decade later, India's C-DAC had developed over 30

supercomputers in its Param series, and exported some to Russia, Germany and

Canada. By 1998, the Params were crossing 10 GFLOPS, with an 'open frame'

design using standard chips and components from the market. By 2003, C-DAC's

Param 'Padma' had touched 1 TFLOPS, or 1,000 GFLOPS, using a cluster of

computers (with 250 processors) running Linux.


The point is neither about the pace of progress, nor about India's

achievements in supercomputing. The first is a given: yesterday's

supercomputer is beaten by today's laptop. A cheap quad-core 2.66GHz Xeon

workstation outperforms a multimillion-dollar Cray C90 from early 1990s. And

with C-DAC fading from the supercomputing picture, India doesn't feature in

the Top 500 supercomputers list. Eight of the Top 500 supercomputers are located

in India, but none are India-made. Six are IBM, the other two HP. (There are 13

supercomputers in China, 24 in Japan, and 282 in the US.)

The point is that supercomputers are no longer proprietary

giants with exclusive processors and operating systems. They're standard,

usually clusters of nodes made from off-the-shelf equipment.

In 2004, a young 1999 graduate from Annamalai, Tamil Nadu, then

working for California Digital-a US-based company owned by an Indian-built

the world's second-fastest computer, Thunder, with 4,096 64-bit Itanium2

processors and 8 TB of RAM, running Linux. Anand Babu released the software into

the public domain, under GNU GPL. He said that the 'community' now

contributes a great deal, speeding up progress and lowering cost. (Thunder, at

the USA's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is still #34 on the Top 500


Babu then co-founded Z Research in 2005, architecting a cluster

filesystem and supercomputing stack, and again put that into the public domain.

This software's the basis for supercomputers now sold by Wipro, built with a

cluster of standard Xeon-based servers. That brings a teraflop supercomputer to

the Rs 25 lakh level, such as a recent installation at Ahmedabad's Institute

of Plasma Research. Similar performance from other vendors can cost over four

times as much.

For the record, the Top 500 supercomputers include 374 clusters.

And 389 systems run some variant of Linux.