The Story Behind India's First Computer

08 Nov 2018

PARAM 8000, made by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) in 1991, is the first supercomputer which means supreme in Sanskrit. India has started its journey of supercomputing after getting a denial from Cray supercomputers for import as they were also capable of assisting in the development of Nuclear weapons. The C-DAC decided to be self-sufficient and self-dependent in the field and set up the then Department of Electronics in 1988. Vijay Pandurang Bhatkar, an Indian computer scientist, IT leader, and educationist, was the director of this department. He is widely known as the architect of India’s first supercomputer honored by Padma Bhushan, Padma Shri, and Maharashtra Bhushan awards. With an initial fund of 300,000,000 and time duration of 3 years, this supercomputer surpassed most other systems and placed India second after the US. With a reconfigurable interconnection network, PARAM 8000 was equipped with a new and innovative microprocessor architecture designed for parallel processing. Parallel processing involves breaking of multiple tasks into smaller tasks which process parallelly. In the end, outputs from each processor are combined to get the result. 

Supercomputers are developed during the 80s by the USA and some other European countries. They were critical for the development of satellites and nuclear weapons. After they refuse to transfer the knowledge of developing supercomputers, India decided to set up its own Centre for Development of Advanced Computing C-DAC in March 1988. India has a clear mandate to design an indigenous supercomputer to meet high-speed computational requirements for solving scientific and other progressive problems which require fast number crunching. 

C-DAC was established as a scientific society of the then Department of Electronics following a specific guidance of the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (SAC-PM). The then Department of Electronics is now the Department of Information Technology DIT under the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. The then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi chosen a man to lead the project whose life is not full of ‘supers’ to build one in double-quick time. But being well-aware about all the shortcuts, Vijay Pandurang Bhatkar is the country’s top number-cruncher. He had begun school directly in the 4th standard and still made it to the top. Three questions were asked by Rajiv Gandhi when he met Bhatkar - “Can we do it?”. Bhatkar replied, “I have not seen a supercomputer as we have no access to a supercomputer, I have only seen a picture of the Cray! But, yes, we can.” The next question Rajiv Gandhi asked him was “How long will it take?”. Bhatkar promptly replied, “Less than it will take us in trying to import Cray from the US. And the last question Mr. Gandhi asked was “How much money it would take?”.

Bhatkar said, “The whole effort, including building an institution, developing the technology, commissioning and installation India’s first supercomputer will cost less than the cost of Cray.”

After listening so positive and confident replies from Bhatkar, Rajiv Gandhi was pleased and gave the go-ahead to the project. C-DAC summoned scientists from across the globe to begin working on one of India’s greatest technology projects. After three years, the extraordinary happened just like Bhatkar claimed. With everyone working so hard and focuses on this project, it finally got completed within the proposed deadline. In 1991, C-DAC introduced India’s first indigenous supercomputer: PARAM 8000. This supercomputer used Inmos T800 transputers and was distributed memory MIMD architecture with a reconfigurable interconnection network. Equipped with 64 CPUs, this supercomputer was exported to Germany, UK, and Russia. 

This is the first time ever in the history that a developing country had pulled off such a feat in the field of advanced computer development. The entire world was astonished by this development done by India that too within 3 years. Bhatkar decided to take the first Indian supercomputer PARAM prototype to a major international supercomputers conference and exhibition as many were doubtful about it being truly a supercomputer. There, PARAM was proudly demonstrated, benchmarked, and officially declared a supercomputer. This news spread like a fire and published in many newspapers including the US too with the headline, “Denied Supercomputer, Angry India does it”.

PARAM 8000 was benchmarked at 5 Gflops making this multiprocessor machine the second fastest supercomputer in the world after the US. When it comes to cost, this machine costed way less than the legendary US machine Cray with great performance and output. Cray priced slashed by the US company after this great achievement of India. After PARAM 8000, a lot of improvements and further developments took place which gave birth to a whole series of PARAM in 2002. This includes PARAM 20000 or PARAM Padma, PARAM Ishan, and PARAM Kanchenjunga. Thousand billion flops barrier was broken by PARAM Padma with a top speed of 1 Tflop. 

PARAM Ishan is installed at IIT Guwahati for various applications like computational chemistry, computational electromagnetics, computational fluid dynamics, civil engineering structures, climate modeling, nono-block self-assemble, and seismic data processing. PARAM Kanchenjunga is placed at NIT, Sikkim’s Supercomputing Centre where it is used for engineering research conducted by the students and faculty as well as researchers across the state. Bhatkar did not stop here. He also built the National Param Supercomputing Facility NPSF which has been made available now as a grid computing facility through garuda grid of the National Knowledge Network. This provides access to High-performance Computing HPC across the nation. Steps to have supercomputing in Indian languages has also been initiated by Bhatlar. 

The Indian government is now working towards doing better in the field of supercomputing by initiating 4,500-crore National Supercomputing Mission. This mission targets the installation of more than 70 high-performance computing facilities in India. Connected by the National Knowledge Network, the first of these high-performing machines is being developed by the C-DAC.

By: Preeti Narula

Posted By - Assistant Editor