Supercomputers & National Supercomputing Mission – How will it help fight Coronavirus?

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Recently, the Union Ministry of Science and Technology has informed about the progress of the National Supercomputing Mission. India has produced just three supercomputers since 2015, less than one per year on average, under the National Supercomputing Mission. This is in stark contrast to China, which in the last six months had added 8 more supercomputers, increasing the number to 227. The Indian Government is planning to install three more supercomputers by April 2020 and 11 new systems will likely be set up in different IITs, NITs, National Labs and IISERs across the country by December this year. The main reason behind India’s slow progress is the lack of funds during the initial years. Now, the project has gathered momentum due to the government’s support and its realisation of the technology’s potential in addressing problems faced by mankind.

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What is National Supercomputing Mission?

  • National Supercomputing Mission (MSM) was launched in April 2015 by the Centre to provide the country with supercomputing infrastructure that can meet the growing computational demands of academia, researchers, MSMEs and startups by creating indigenous supercomputers.
  • This mission would connect national academic and R&D institutions with a grid of over 70 high-performance computing facilities.
  • These supercomputers will also be networked on the National Supercomputing grid over National Knowledge Network (NKN), another government programme that connects academic institutions and R&D labs over a high-speed network.
  • The mission would be implemented by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) through Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru.
  • This mission aims to establish a network of supercomputers ranging from few tera Flops (TF) to hundreds of TF and three systems with greater than or equal to 3 Peta Flops in academic and research institutions of national importance across the country by 2022. Flops (Floating point operations per second) is a measure of computer performance.
  • Previously, the mission aimed at a total of 15-20 PF. This was later revised to a total of 45 PF (45000 TFs), a jump of 6 times more computer power within the same cost and capability to solve large and complex computational problems.
  • The total budget of MSM is Rs.4,500 crore funded jointly by the MeitY and DST.
  • Under this mission, the long-term plan is to build a strong base of 20,000 skilled personnel over the next five years to handle this complex technology. Param Shavak is one of the machines used for this purpose.

What are the objectives of NSM?

  • To make India one of the world leaders in supercomputing and to enhance India’s capability in solving national and global problems
  • To empower Indian scientists and researchers with state-of-the-art supercomputing facilities and enable them to carry out cutting-edge research in their respective domains
  • To minimise redundancies and duplications of efforts and optimise investments in supercomputing
  • To attain global competitiveness and ensure self-reliance in the strategic area of supercomputing technology

Why do we need supercomputers?

  • Developed and almost-developed countries have begun ensuring high investments in supercomputers to boost their economies and tackle new social problems.
  • These high-performance computers can simulate the real world, by processing massive amounts of data, making cars and planes safer, and more fuel-efficient and environment-friendly.
  • They also aid in the extraction of new sources of oil and gas, development of alternative energy sources, and advancement in medical sciences.
  • Supercomputers have also helped weather forecasters to accurately predict severe storms, enable better mitigation planning and warning systems.
  • They are also used by financial services, manufacturing and internet companies and infrastructure systems like water-supply networks, energy grids, and transportation.
  • Future applications of artificial intelligence (AI) also depend on supercomputing.
  • Due to the potential of this technology, countries like the US, China, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia have created national-level supercomputing strategies and are investing substantially in these programmes.

When did India initiate its efforts to build supercomputers?

  • India’s supercomputer programme initiated in the late 1980s, when the United States ceased the export of a Cray Supercomputer due to technology embargos.
  • This resulted in India setting up C-DAC in 1988, which in 1991, unveiled the prototype of PARAM 800, benchmarked at 5 Gflops. This supercomputer was the second-fastest in the world at that time.
  • Since June 2018, the USA’s Summit is the fastest supercomputer in the world, taking away this position from China.
  • As of January 2018, Pratyush and Mihir are the fastest supercomputers in India with a maximum speed of Peta Flops.

What are the phases of the National Supercomputing Mission?

Phase I:

  • In the first phase of the NSM, parts of the supercomputers are imported and assembled in India.
  • A total of 6 supercomputers are to be installed in this phase.
  • The first supercomputer that was assembled indigenously is called Param Shivay. It was installed in IIT (BHU) located in Varanasi.
  • Similar systems, Param Shakti (IIT Kharagpur) and Param Brahma (IISER, Pune) were also later installed within the country.
  • The rest will be installed at IIT Kanpur, IIT Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Studies (JNIAS).

Phase II:

  • The supercomputers that are installed so far are about 60% indigenous.
  • The 11 systems that are going to be installed in the next phase will have processors designed by Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) and will have a cumulative capacity of 10 petaflops.
  • These new systems are to be constructed more cost-effectively than the previous ones.
  • One of the 11 proposed supercomputers will be installed
  • at C-DAC exclusively for small and medium enterprises so that they can train employees as well as work on supercomputers at a very low cost.

Phase III:

  • The third phase aims to build fully indigenous supercomputers.
  • The government had also approved a project to develop a cryogenic cooling system that rapidly dispels the heat generated by a computing chip. This will be jointly built together by IIT-Bombay and C-DAC.

What are the advantages of the National Supercomputing Mission?

  • The National Supercomputing Mission can ensure accessibility to supercomputers at an affordable rate to the scientific community and medium and small enterprises.
  • It can exponentially enhance the quality and quantity of R&D and higher education in the areas of science and technology.
  • It can solve the current and future challenges that are plaguing the country.
  • Currently, the world’s top supercomputers are mostly under the control of advanced nations like the US, Japan, China and the European Union. This Mission has the potential to bring India into this select league of such nations.
  • These supercomputers can be used in the areas of climate modelling, weather predictions, computational biology, atomic energy simulations, defence, disaster simulation, astrophysics etc.
  • These computers have played a crucial role in scientific and technological advancements in numerous fields.
  • Unlike other computers, these high-performance machines can crunch the most complex of data at a speed, which is millions of times faster than a desktop PC.
  • This mission, aiming to provide supercomputing facilities to about 60-70 institutions across the nation and thousands of active researchers, academicians, is moving fast towards creating a computer infrastructure within the country.
  • This mission can also enhance the country’s capacity to develop the next generation of supercomputer experts.

How do other countries make use of supercomputers?

China:

  • Jiangsu Province has a supercomputer called “Sunway TaihuLight”.
  • This supercomputer performs a wide range of tasks, including climate science, weather forecasting and earth-system modelling to help ships avoid rough seas, improve farmers’ yields and ensure the safety of offshore drilling.
  • TaihuLight has already led to an increase in profits and a reduction in expenses that justify its cost ($270 million).

United States:

  • In the US, supercomputers are radically transforming the healthcare system.
  • The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has used supercomputers to create a far more detailed model of the Hepatitis-C virus, a major cause of the liver disease that costs $9 billion in healthcare costs in the US alone.
  • Using supercomputers, the researchers have now developed a model that comprehensively simulates heart down to the cellular level and can lead to a substantial reduction in heart diseases.

These are some of the very few cases of how supercomputers have enhanced breakthroughs in various fields.

How do supercomputers help fight coronavirus?

  • Earlier, the US had established COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium that will bring together industry, academic institutions, and federal laboratories to try to identify or create candidate compounds that might prevent or treat coronavirus infection.
  • One of the members of the consortium, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, aimed to look into compounds that are already available in the market that might combat COVID-19.
  • For this purpose, the world’s fastest supercomputer “Summit” was used.
  • Like other viruses, the novel coronavirus uses a spike protein to inject cells.
  • Using Summit with an algorithm to investigate which drugs could bind to the protein and prevent the virus from doing its duty, the researchers have a list of 77 drugs that show promise.
  • Starting with 8,000 compounds, Summit has shortened the time of the experiment exponentially, ruling out the vast majority of possible medications before settling on 77 drugs, which are ranked based on how effective they are likely to be at halting the virus in the human body.

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What can be the way forward?

  • It is evident that supercomputers would become a vital part of our lives as it can provide solutions to the current and future problems and India, one of the most populous nations in the world, must ensure that it also has access to this technology for the welfare of its people.
  • Supercomputers, as they operate at such incredible speeds, will encounter numerous barriers like network and interconnectivity hardware that previous generations of designers did not have to deal with.
  • The cooling system is also one of the major design constraints.
  • Hence, India must give a high emphasis on innovation to tackle these challenges.
  • India must also give high emphasis to the application rather than the technology itself.
  • Supercomputing research also requires fundamental research of the next stages of computing like quantum computing that are still in the theoretical stage.
  • Bureaucratic red-tapism must be circumvented and scientists and researchers must be allowed to take bold and radical steps without fear of reprisal.
  • The government must also invest in necessary physical and digital infrastructure.
  • It must also address the challenges of:
  • Limited funding and delayed release of funds
  • The increasing need for imports for necessary hardware components to build supercomputers

Conclusion:

Supercomputers are strategically important for India as it can help the country to become a knowledge-driven economy. This technology also can support cutting edge research that can benefit the economy, society, businesses, environment, etc. Thus, enhancing investments, improving flexibility for research and providing other necessary infrastructures must be ensured for it to grow. Without this technology, India risks being surpassed on the global stage by other nations and will consequently miss the huge benefits that come from having this strategically important technology at the disposal of the country’s best and brightest minds.

Practice question for mains:

Critically examine the significance and challenges of the National Supercomputing Mission. (250 words)




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