Bangalore: Six months after the Computational Research Laboratories, or CRL, in Pune unveiled its supercomputer EKA, which was ranked the fourth fastest supercomputer in the world and was hailed as much for its number-crunching speed as for its creator’s business model, the machine has begun testing applications for its customers.
The company expects revenue to start trickling in over the next three months.
“It won’t immediately be close to what we’ve invested ($30 million) in CRL, but we will justify the investment,” says N. Seetha Rama Krishna, head of operations at CRL, a fully owned subsidiary of Tata Sons Ltd.
EKA and CRL mark a radical change in the world of high performance computing (HPC) which is largely known for its lack of economic traction and private investment. EKA is the only completely corporate-funded machine among the Top 10 supercomputers in the annual supercomputing (SC07) list announced in November in Nevada, US.
“We’ve been driven by the idea that supercomputing is also the differentiator for the nation’s economy and that it (supercomputing) can be a viable business,” says Krishna. So, following the tough HPC norms, where technologies become obsolete faster than applications get ported on them or businesses start kicking in, CRL is in talks with several customers who can validate their concepts on EKA.
“We want to prove to the world that it is not just a benchmark machine: It’s not only a racing car, if you wish you can convert (it) into a passenger vehicle,” says Krishna.
Another Tata group company (Tata Sons is the holding firm for the group), Tata Motors Ltd, recently challenged similar issues at the low-end of the car market when it unveiled the Nano for Rs1 lakh (approximately $2,500).
A unique model: Computational fluid dynamics model of the EKA data centre. EKA and CRL mark a radical change in the world of high performance computing (HPC) which is largely known for its lack of economic traction and private investment.
CRL’s customers range from companies engaged in businesses such as oil and gas exploration, life sciences, automobile and aerospace, re-launch vehicles, even media. Boeing Co. announced last week that it would run its high lift computational fluid dynamics program on EKA, which will model “high lift aerodynamic simulations in three dimensions”, something crucial for the design and development of aircraft wings.
The type of applications that EKA is testing in digital media—Maya, Material Studio, Abacus, Renderman, to name a few—proves that the zing in the Indian media market has not gone unnoticed by this research organization.
The unique thing about the Tata group’s involvement in HPC is the natural synergy between the business house and CRL, with the group’s various businesses helping as well as using CRL, says S. Ramakrishnan, director general of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), a government organization working in the same area in Pune. And, indeed, Tata Motors, including the newly acquired brands of Jaguar and Land Rover, is among the first few automobile clients of CRL, confirms Krishna.
Experts say the Tata group has played its cards well. “Today, it’s only engineering services for Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (the group’s software firm), but tomorrow it could be more germane work, like it’s happening in the pharmaceutical sector,” says Ramakrishnan.
According to IT research firm IDC, the HPC server market will cross $12 billion in 2008, up from $10 billion in 2006; the market has seen an average revenue growth of 20% in the past four years. IDC says the growth is fuelled largely by evolving R&D practices as HPC has made inroads into government, industry, and the academia. Even businesses of different sizes are using HPC-based modelling and simulation to remain at the top of the curve.
CRL knows this well, and admits to having studied the market. It appears to have a game plan different from that of other HPC companies. “There’s a lot of repetition of HPC work going on across the country,” says Krishna, referring to various institutions and organizations opting for similar machines, with even the vendors being the same in many cases. The question CRL poses is: “Is there a way we can conserve all of this?”
In short, CRL thinks the HPC user community in the country could use EKA as it is open to some customization. “Stand on my shoulders and add value to your work,” says Krishna.
Goals and challenges
Currently building strength in the area of climate modelling, CRL aims to be able to use global climate data to predict the region’s climate in the next 25 years. “We hope that the Prime Minister can look at this prediction and make policy decisions in power generation, agriculture and several other sectors of the economy,” says Krishna.
Similarly, agencies involved in space exploration can reduce their experimental rocket launches from five to one, making their launch capabilities more predictable, claims CRL.
However, there’s another area where CRL nurses a somewhat hidden ambition and that’s training hundreds of HPC scientists and researchers, which will eventually have a “multiplier” effect not only on their business but also the scientific capability of the country. “And then, what stops me from building petascale or even exascale machines?” notes Krishna. Currently, EKA is a 120 Terflop machine, performing 120 trillion calculations per second.
But before it moves to Petaflop machines (1,000 trillion calculations per second), CRL is gearing to build “systems” in users’ premises, not smaller machines, but large complex systems such as EKA. It also plans to build next generation architecture and other “technical building blocks”. An Exaflop machine can perform one quintillion (or a million trillion) calculations per second.
In March, CRL announced a research collaboration with Internet firm Yahoo Inc., in a relatively new area of “cloud computing”; CRL believes this will add to its learning. Cloud computing is simply the application of HPC power to routine and normal computing tasks such as assessing financial risks attached to an investment. However, it differs from supercomputing in two ways: It uses PC technology on an army of normal servers, and customers access the service over the Web.
Meanwhile, CRL is preparing to better EKA’s performance and architecture at the annual Top 500 competition in November.
“It was joy of a lifetime,” says Krishna, referring to last year’s rank. “But, today, we are like anybody else, back on our toes; nobody can take such positions for granted.”