“We are going to install 73 supercomputers in different parts of the country and all will be linked by a computer grid,” said a government statement on 25 March 2015, the day the NDA government approved a Rs 4,500-crore (~ $670 million) plan towards a National Supercomputing Mission (NSM). Rs 2,800 crore would come from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Rs 1,700 crore from the Department of IT.

As goals went, it was not only audacious but also sensible. Rs 4,500 crore over seven years to make ‘home brew supercomputers’ a reality in India. How? By taking off-the-shelf components and making teraflop computers—computing at a trillion floating point operations per second—that are easy to maintain. And then seed them in colleges and universities across the country. The smallest of institutions with access to the highest order of computing systems. In the process create a wave of High Performance Computing (HPC), as supercomputing is also referred to. Finally, demonstrate that not just defence, climate change or seemingly grandiose problems but everyday industrial use-cases would need and benefit from such computing power.

The high-level process would be simple.

Decide how many of those teraflop machines will be bought and how many will be built (read, assembled) locally. Seek expressions of intent from vendors who are milling around. Consult the users at the planning stage and during the purchase of hardware because different real world problems require different architecture. Call for proposals in a transparent, phased manner, depending on what pressing problems your core team of experts have identified and then get on with releasing money and solving those problems. Sounds like a plan, in any given circumstance.

This is where intent and actions differ, unfortunately. Because two years later, not one supercomputer has been installed.

It can’t possibly be because no one supposedly knows how many of these will be bought and how many have to be assembled. “Earlier the plan was half of the supercomputers would be bought to get the research started and then half of the systems would be integrated,” says a technology vendor, who requested not to be named because he is still involved in the project. “As vendors, we have given technology specifications and roadmaps several times. An expression of intent was sought but nothing has moved beyond that.”

There are various committees set up, for R&D, infrastructure, applications and so on. But they are all at sea. “Committees have been meeting but have no clue how to proceed, or to what deadline. They discuss, go back, meet again, discuss and go back,” says one committee member in Bengaluru. He requested not to be named.

For a mission that was meant to revive India’s place in the global Top 500 supercomputers list, create a cadre of professionals and get the Indian industry hooked to HPC, it has become an old boys’ network.

AUTHOR

Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

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