‘PARAM Ganga’, a supercomputer at IIT Roorkee, with a supercomputing capacity of 1.66 Petaflops.

India’s supercomputing capabilities lag behind its competitors

Of two of the top 100 supercomputers in the world in 2020, the country now has none in that category, and only three in the top 500, according to a global ranking service for the world’s fastest supercomputers called Top 500.

Supercomputers can speed up calculations by providing exponentially greater computing power than regular machines. In May 2020, researchers at the US Oak Ridge National Lab ran thousands of simulations to find drug compounds that could prevent the Covid-19 virus from infecting host cells. They completed the simulations in just 2-3 days using IBM’s Summit supercomputer.

“Supercomputers can be used for a lot of things in certain fields, like chemical formulations, protein folding, biomedicine. They can also be used in space for satellite placements, which are very, very difficult to solve with classical computers,” says Nikhil Malhotra , Chief Innovation Officer at Tech Mahindra.

Countries around the world, including India, have expanded their supercomputing capabilities in recent years. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has installed four supercomputers this year at various institutions in the country. Fifteen supercomputers, with a total computing capacity of 24 petaflops, have been installed in the country since 2015, as part of the National Supercomputing Mission (NSM).

According to experts, building local supercomputing capabilities will enhance high-quality research in biomedicine, space technology and climate, which requires high computing power. However, they also pointed out that the available computing power of Indian supercomputers is significantly lower than that of their global counterparts.

India’s first supercomputer, PARAMETERS 8000was founded in 1990. Param Siddhi, which offers a peak performance of 5.27 PFlops, distinguished itself when it launched in November 2020 as the 63rd fastest supercomputer in the world, according to the Top 500 global ranking service. It has since slipped to 111th spot.

Similarly, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) Pratyush supercomputer, which used to be in the top 100, now ranks 132. In total, India has three supercomputers in the top 500’s overall list. China and the US account for nearly two-thirds of the world’s top 500 supercomputers, with 173 and 128, respectively, of the world’s 500 most powerful supercomputers.

The computing power of a supercomputer is measured in floating point operations per second, or FLOPS. One PetaFlops equals 1,000,000,000,000,000 (one quadrillion) FLOPS, or a thousand TeraFlops. The world’s fastest supercomputer, Borderlocated in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, it offers a peak performance of 1,685 PFlops.

“The baseline behind any supercomputer is faster performance. The world is moving to ExaFlops and we’re still on PetaFlops,” said Preeti Syal, a technology policy expert who used to work with Niti Aayog. “We’re always two years behind. If we keep overtaking, we will always be left behind.”

Suryachandra Rao, project director at IITM, noted that leaders like China and the US are looking at exascale computing and that is the next milestone for India to reach as well. However, he also pointed out that India faces a double challenge: expanding capacity and making such resources available to more researchers and institutes. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

“At the moment, the aim is to enable more people to use such resources. Ten years ago we had 1 or 2 systems. Now we are settling in different locations. This will build capabilities and give more users access,” he added.

Rao said previous weather and climate forecasts were the only priority. Now there are many other uses for supercomputing.

But besides having supercomputers, having the latest hardware is just as important. Syal noted that how India makes these supercomputers or the components used in them is also important in taking their supercomputer performance to the next level.

Building more cases is the next challenge for the NSM. Syal said the use cases are currently limited. “Worldwide, most of the use comes from industry. What we do instead is let research institutions direct it. They will never be able to think in terms of commercialization. These research institutions should also be directly linked to major industry players.”

Budget is another challenge. Rao said his institute is working to increase Pratyush’s capacity. Although, he said, their requirement is a minimum of 150 PFlops, due to budget constraints, they will be able to get somewhere around 10-20 PFlops.

Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) did not respond to Mint’s email inquiry until the time of writing. A division of MeitY, C-DAC is responsible for designing, developing and commissioning supercomputers under NSM.

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