Mumbai: Supercomputing plays a vital role in almost all critical areas in the modern industrial age and is considered as a medium to increase economic competitiveness of a nation. In India, the supercomputing ecosystem is at a nascent stage with an acute shortage of professionals.

Currently, there is a dearth of academic institutions teaching or using supercomputing-related areas and applications. Factors like prohibitive costs, lack of support to adopt supercomputing and minimal awareness about its importance are hurdles that the country needs to cross.

That is where Onama comes in. It is a hardware and software package developed by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) to address a shortage of supercomputing professionals in the country by providing affordable mini-computers and related software to colleges to aid skill development in complex computing.

C-DAC was launched to build India’s supercomputing ability, according to Pradeep Sinha, senior director, high performance computing and research and development.

However, it soon realized that rather that just building supercomputers, the country also needs supercomputing facilities and people who could use and work on these devices.

“We wanted to address the problem at the grassroots level," Sinha said. “There are a few high performance computing (HPC) labs in IITs and ISIs. However, when you talk to other engineering colleges, they do not have this facility. Many students in other engineering colleges have never even heard of supercomputing."

C-DAC wanted to solve that problem and decided to develop a small parallel processing system that will work like a supercomputer.

Supercomputing systems work on parallel processing technology, and in India, colleges only teach sequential programming.

“So with that vision in mind, we started creating parallel processing systems. Basically, they integrate many small computers and make them work on a single problem. So the same thing works here. We found that money to the extent for 10-20 lakh for a good engineering college is not much," he said.

Launched in September 2010, Onama is a package of a selected set of open-source serial as well as parallel computing applications and tools across various engineering disciplines such as computer science, mechanical, electrical, electronics, civil and chemical engineering and is currently being deployed in six colleges.

“Engineers who graduate today don’t understand parallel programming and supercomputing and there is a dearth of proper skilled manpower. We are trying to bridge gap, as HPC is used as a tool world over for the advancement of economies," said Goldi Misra, group coordinator and head, HPC Solutions Group, C-DAC. “We have created a bundle, which is a small supercomputer, made out of four-node clusters configuration which is affordable."

Onama is basically a scaled down version of a supercomputer, where only a clustering of four servers is involved.

A typical supercomputer in India would have at least a 32-64 machines clustered together.

“We have been able to deploy this in six places already in engineering colleges and are also targeting state-level director generals who will use this tool in their engineering colleges. By January, we will be deployed in NIT Silchar," said Misra.

C-DAC’s long-term plan is to make this package available to a number of engineering students, faculties and research scholars from various research and engineering institutes and meet a target of reaching out to around a million users.

Affordability of the project is the key, according to C-DAC. “No separate funding was required," said Misra. “We did it out of our project activities, as it is an offshoot of another larger project."

Sinha said that C-DAC has recently started another initiative called e-Onama, which makes the software accessible from anywhere from desktop computers and smartphones. This ensures that students are not restricted to their classrooms.

“We still don’t have the required skill and funding," said Sinha. “We started in 2010, and are still warming up to educating the community. And what is important is education of community. People should be excited and educated, and will move with viral talk. It will not happen overnight. Once students learn and graduate, the word will spread. That will take four-six years’ time, and then this will spread like fire."

“This is a no-profit, no-loss venture," said Sinha. “Colleges will be putting in the money for the hardware and Onama comes as a bundle as it is our software and it’s an open source, so we don’t need to pay anyone."

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan Awards.

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