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Issue dated - 16th August 2004

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The incredible shrinking supercomputer ranking

India’s tech poster boy of the eighties, C-DAC, can boast of a glorious past. However recent advancements on the supercomputing front, together with C-DAC’s failure to find a market for its products, have given rise to a big question: can the organisation keep up with the times? C-DAC needs to spruce up its act—or India’s supercomputing dream may soon be relegated to the history books, says SRIKANTH RP

IN THE late eighties, Indians had good reason to be proud. Back then, when the US government refused to allow India to procure a Cray supercomputer for weather forecasting, our very own Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) came up with an indigenous alternative—the Param—based on a massive parallel processing architecture. That the country could develop a supercomputer twice as powerful as a serial Cray of the time—and at one-third the cost—made headlines the world over.

Unfortunately, C-DAC has continued to rely on its iconic status instead of moving ahead. Analysts tracking the supercomputer market believe that C-DAC’s architecture, though revolutionary in the 80s, is expensive today. Which is why even state-owned firms now prefer MNC or other vendors for their supercomputing needs.

For instance, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, decided to go in for a Cray supercomputer with a sustained speed of 205 Gigaflops at a cost of around Rs 8 crore (funded by the department of atomic energy). Further, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Chennai, set up a cluster using Linux to develop a supercomputer codenamed Kabru (see box: The making of Kabru) with a sustained speed of 959 Gigaflops. C-DAC should have ideally competed and won these orders, especially since both institutions are state-owned.

The US government has relaxed quite a few restrictions on the export of supercomputers to India, with the result that vendors such as Cray have been aggressively hawking their products in the country. It’s not as if Indo-American relations have suddenly reached a new high. The simple fact is that with desktop processors becoming faster, and supercomputing features becoming available in the Linux Kernel, cluster-based supercomputers are gaining ground—something that both the US government and vendors realise.

The Linux cluster set up at IMSc is the country’s most powerful academic supercomputer. In comparison, C-DAC’s top-end offering (Param Padma) yields only 540 Gigaflops. The result? C-DAC does not find a place in the Top500 supercomputer list any more (source: top500.org).

Inconsistent policy hampers delivery

Analysts are asking whether C-DAC’s architecture is still relevant and cost-effective. We posed this question to the man who is said to be the father of the supercomputing revolution in India, Dr Vijay Bhatkar. While Dr Bhatkar is confident that C-DAC’s architecture is still relevant in today’s market, he feels that lack of effort on the government’s part is largely responsible for C-DAC’s sluggish reputation.

“We proved in the late eighties that by using clusters instead of large SMP machines for high-performance computing, we can deliver the same performance at a fraction of the cost,” declares Bhatkar. “This vision has, however, not changed with the times. I would blame the lack of a consistent policy from the government, rather than C-DAC, for failing to deliver on the promise of a great future.”

What’s ironic is that C-DAC’s architecture has been adopted by many supercomputing players to good effect. For the uninitiated, C-DAC’s Param Padma is architecturally a cluster with IBM pSeries Quad CPU nodes combined with C-DAC’s proprietary ParamNet II high-speed interconnect. Due to tremendous cost advantages, the tendency to use clusters instead of large SMP machines for high-performance technical computing is increasing. For example, in the last Top500 supercomputer list, 208 systems were classified as clusters, up from 149 in the earlier list. This trend is expected to accelerate, showing that clustering is here to stay.

So what’s wrong with C-DAC’s architecture?

Though C-DAC has developed a supercomputer capable of a peak computing power of one Teraflop, the sustained performance, which analysts say is the real benchmark, is only around 540 Gigaflops.

Amal D’Silva of Summation Enterprises, whose company was involved in putting together Kabru, the fastest academic supercomputing cluster in India, has an explanation. “Choosing expensive (RISC/Unix) nodes instead of the lower-cost dual CPU Intel/AMD nodes, along with low volumes for ParamNet II, probably prevents the current implementation from being cost-effective.” But he is quick to add that without C-DAC, Indians would not have been exposed to high-performance computing.

Says Prof N D Hari Dass of IMSc, “From what I’ve seen of Param Padma, coupled with our own experience in building a Teraflop-class supercomputer, I’d say that the most serious hurdle to Param Padma’s acceptance is the cost. The real strength of

According to Amal D’Silva, choosing expensive (RISC/Unix) nodes instead of the lower-cost dual CPU Intel/AMD nodes, along with low volumes for ParamNet II, probably prevents the current implementation from being cost-effective

C-DAC’s architecture is the ParamNet switch. It should complement this by going in for cheaper computer nodes. This is how we significantly brought down our costs. Once the cost becomes favourable, there would be greater demand for C-DAC’s products.”

Analysts agree that C-DAC has to look at improving the efficiency of its cluster architecture. This efficiency can be calculated by looking at the ratio of the sustained to peak performance of a machine. Param Padma’s efficiency is 44 percent, while Kabru’s efficiency is a much higher 70 percent.

The finest talent isn’t enough

Though C-DAC possesses the best technical talent in the country, it has been slow to react to the marketplace since every decision needs government approval. And while the organisation has moved into areas such as local language computing and e-governance, the focus on supercomputers seems to be fading.

So is the organisation on the right track? While R Ramakrishnan, who recently took over as executive director of C-DAC, admits there’s not enough demand for supercomputers in India, he points out that it is unfair to compare a technical R&D organisation with a product company. “This has always been the pioneer’s problem. We pioneered the supercomputing and local-language software revolution in India. Other companies followed our steps and became success stories. Our main focus, then and now, is to be a pioneer in developing new technologies that will benefit Indian society. However, we recognise the changing times, and you will see a lot of action on the supercomputing front soon.”

Government policy

Another problem, as Dr Bhatkar points out, is the lack of consistent government policy and support. Countries such as the US and Japan (which incidentally boasts of the fastest supercomputer in the world today) do not hesitate to fund supercomputing projects extensively since they are considered to be strategic to their future. In contrast, the Indian government has been following a flip-flop policy with most of our R&D institutions not knowing what the user organisations need. Dr Bhatkar says that unless user organisations and R&D institutions collaborate, this disconnect will remain.

The lack of a clear government policy could also be seen when the American government relaxed regulations in 1992-93 for the export of supercomputers. Questions were then asked whether India should continue to invest in producing its own supercomputers. After considerable indecision, the government gave the go-ahead to C-DAC to continue its focus on its next mission, Param 10000. The importance of investing in supercomputing research was proved when India conducted nuclear tests in 1998, and the US reacted haughtily by imposing sanctions. Now, after TIFR has installed a Cray, the same questions are cropping up.

G Nagarjuna, who is associated with the Free Software Foundation, has a valid point: “A country striving to achieve self-reliance in supercomputing should invest for making supercomputers within the country. Cost should never be a hindrance to achieving independence and self-reliance. We should attain these virtues at any cost.” This sentiment is echoed by Dr Bhatkar, who says that the Indian government has to put its weight behind its people.

Amal D’Silva of Summation feels the lifting of any embargo by the US should not make a difference. “While the US has offered to remove the few remaining organisations from the ‘denied parties’ list, this decision, just like the one made to impose it, is totally arbitrary and can be reversed anytime, depending on political expediency. This can hit purchasing institutions hard as they will have to go through the entire process once again. A worse fate awaits those users who have sanctions imposed after they have received supercomputers. The vendors and their Indian representatives are not willing to deliver any kind of support, even within the warranty period. This leaves the user with expensive and useless hardware.”

Nationwide grid

While C-DAC cannot change government policy, it can try to create a scenario where its supercomputers make good economic sense. It has already started an initiative to build a nationwide grid of supercomputers. The grid would allow academic institutions to tap the processing power of supercomputers instead of purchasing one. Sources at C-DAC also say that the institution is trying to adopt lower-cost Intel/AMD nodes instead of the more expensive RISC/Unix nodes.

Says Nagarjuna, “It was reported recently that the department of atomic energy made a grant of Rs 3.5 crore to IMSc. The Linux cluster, which clocked a peak speed of 1.382 Teraflops, was realised at a cost of Rs 2.5 crore—a fraction of what supercomputers of this pedigree would cost. As you can see, there is enough expertise within the country.” Consider this: the Kabru uses only half the processors to achieve 85 percent of the performance that India’s fastest supercomputer manages to do with double the number of processors. Nagarjuna believes that Indian R&D institutions should join the kernel and compiler communities to develop and improve the free libraries required for supercomputing. If such options are considered, perhaps several Params can be made.

While C-DAC is a wonderful R&D institution that may have no parallel in India today, the organisation needs active support from the government to focus and channelise its efforts the way it had done during the creation of the Param 8000. Perhaps the government could use a supercomputer to clear the cobwebs surrounding this great institution.

Supercomputing architectures
Type Vector SMP Cluster
Price Very expensive Expensive Cost-effective
Data model SIMD (singe instruction, multiple data) MIMD (multiple instruction multiple data) MIMD
Initial set-up Ready to use Ready to use Can be complex
OS view Single system image Single system image Single system environment
Source: Summation Enterprises

Top Supercomputers
Rank

1

Site

Country

Year Computer / Processor manufacturer Sustained value (GFlops)

Peak Value (GFlops)

1 Earth Simulator Center

Japan

2002

Earth Simulator / 5120 NEC 35860

40960

2

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

United States

2004

Thunder / Intel Itanium2 Tiger4 1.4GHz - Quadrics / 4096 California Digital Corporation 19940

22938

3

Los Alamos National Laboratory

United States

2002

ASCI Q - AlphaServer SC45, 1.25 GHz / 8192 HP 13880

20480

4

IBM Rochester

United States

 

2004

BlueGene/L DD1 Prototype (0.5GHz PowerPC 440 w/Custom) / 8192 IBM/ LLNL 11680

16384

5

NCSA

United States

2003

TungstenPowerEdge 1750, P4 Xeon 3.06 GHz, Myrinet / 2500 Dell 9819

15300

 

Indian entries
128

Intel

India

2003

xSeries Cluster Xeon 2.4 GHz - Gig-E / 574 IBM 1196.41

2755.2

256

Geoscience

India 2003

xSeries Xeon 3.06 GHz - Gig-E / 256 IBM 961.28 1566.72

257

IMSc

India 2004

KABRU Pentium Xeon Cluster 2.4 GHz - SCI 3D / 288 IMSc-Netweb-Summation 959 1382.4

260

Sciences Geoscience

India 2004 BladeCenter Xeon 3.06 GHz, Gig-Ethernet / 252 IBM 946.26 1542.24

379

PCS Trading

India 2004 SuperDome 875 MHz/HyperPlex / 384 HP 744 1344

481 Tech Pacific Exports India 2004 Integrity Superdome, 1.5 GHz, HPlex / 128 HP 642.9 768
Source: top500.org (June 2004)

The making of Kabru
KABRU is the name of a tall Himalayan peak that remains unconquered by human beings. Though tall, it is not the highest peak in the Himalayas. The idea for Kabru was born when Prof Hari Dass of IMSc, Chennai, started looking for a supercomputer to handle his theoretical physics research, primarily for large-scale simulations in the area of the Lattice Gauge theory. Because much of the professor’s problems were communications-intensive, the choice of the interconnect was a major factor as it determines the speed of the cluster.

Dass started looking at various options for the interconnect such as Gigabit Ethernet and channel bonding. After considering various options, he selected Wulfkit, a high-speed interconnect solution from a Norway-based firm. A pilot gave impressive results. Internode bandwidth was 260 MB per second compared to 80 MB per second for Gigabit Ethernet. The Internode latency was under five microseconds compared to approximately 120 microseconds on Gigabit Ethernet—almost 25 times lower.

Satisfied with the results, IMSc decided to go in for Wulfkit as the main cluster interconnect technology. But one of the key challenges in developing a cluster is controlling the amount of heat generated due to dense packing. A densely-packed cluster such as Kabru (144 dual Xeon nodes in six 42u racks) needs considerable cooling, and careful attention needs to be paid to the air-conditioning and supply. To ensure that the air-conditioning and UPS vendors were able to provide the infrastructure, the cluster was set up in two phases, 80 nodes in the first phase followed by 64 nodes in the second. The second phase was completed in time for submission of the high performance Linpack (HPL) benchmark results to the Top500 list which ranks supercomputers worldwide.

The results that followed stunned many across the world. The final results on the HPL benchmark were 959 Gigaflops (sustained) with a peak performance of 1,382 Gigaflops, making the Kabru the country’s most powerful academic supercomputer.
It is also proof that for most high-end supercomputing problems, expensive and proprietary systems are unnecessary.

Indian Power

ANAND Babu, who works for California Digital in the US—the company is owned by an Indian—has built a supercomputer which is the second-fastest in the world. It has 4096 Itanium2 64 bit processors, 8 TB of RAM, Quadrics Interconnect, and runs GNU/Linux. Codenamed Thunder, the machine boasts more than 20 trillion floating point operations per second, and commands second place in the current Top500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. All the software Babu has released is under GNU GPL.

srikanth@expresscomputeronline.com

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