It all began with frustration. In the early 1980s, the Indian Institute of Science and the India Meteorological Department were trying to import a supercomputer each, but the US government would not permit it because of sanctions on the sale of hightechnology items after India's 1974 nuclear test. Undaunted, Indian scientists decided to build their own supercomputer system. And Sam Pitroda, Rajiv Gandhi's Technology Adviser, convinced India's sixth prime minister about the need for a home-grown programme. Thus was born the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) in 1988.
"Our first machine was developed in three years with a budget of Rs 30 crore," says Prof Rajat Moona, Director General of C-DAC. "We have not looked back." Moona says C-DAC has kept pace with India's growing computing requirements with newer generations of its supercomputers, christened Param, which means "supreme" in Sanskrit. There are two Param supercomputers in Pune and one in Bangalore. The most powerful of the lot is a 50 teraflop machine - one teraflop is one trillion 'floatingpoint operations' per second', a technical term used to describe the power of the system's computing processor. One trillion equals one lakh crore.
Supercomputers are used in several sectors:Weather Forecasting, Climate Research, Space Programmes, Atomic Research, Oil And Gas Exploration, Drug Discovery Programmes, Bio-Technology And Genetics
The supercomputers developed by C-DAC - structured as a scientific society under the Department of Information Technology - provide much-needed computing power to run molecular simulations, weather modelling and even pharmaceutical research. "A lot of researchers use our infrastructure over the Internet to run their applications," says Moona, who previously taught computer science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. "CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) is using our supercomputer for its open source drug discovery programme."
As computing requirements continue to grow, C-DAC's role will become ever more crucial for the nation. The organisation wants to graduate to petascale (one quadrillion floating-point operations per second) and exascale computing (one exaflop is a thousand petaflops) that would enable applications such as advanced medical modelling.
"Exascale computing will enable the world to run applications like personalised drug discovery and genetic engineering. Huge simulations would be required and these need tremendous computing power. However, exascale computing, even globally is four or five years away," says Moona. C-DAC, he adds, can scale to petascale computing in two or three years.
Petascale computing, meanwhile, has already arrived. There are more than 20 petaflop supercomputers worldwide, with the fastest, Titan, installed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States, achieving 17.59 petaflops. While the nation waits for faster supercomputers from C-DAC, the organisation has been contributing in other areas as well, from Indian language computing to agricultural and health-care electronics.
Sony Ericsson and Samsung use Indian language technologies developed at C-DAC on their mobile phones. The organisation's technologies also help in translating Parliament's documents. By commercialising its technology, C-DAC generates revenue of about Rs 100 crore to Rs 115 crore a year. With its 3,000-strong employee base and a huge array of innovations waiting to be unveiled, the organisation can reach for a lot more in the years to come.Goutam Das