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.