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India orders review of US supercomputer deal

NEW DELHI, MARCH 24: The Government has ordered a review of a deal to procure a supercomputer from the US for weather forecasting due to d...

Written by Press Trust Of India |
March 25, 2000

NEW DELHI, MARCH 24: The Government has ordered a review of a deal to procure a supercomputer from the US for weather forecasting due to delays in delivery.

Some computer scientists and technocrats have criticised the Government’s decision to procure the supercomputer from a country which had once denied the technology to it.

The National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF) here, under the Department of Science and Technology (DST), had a few months ago finalised a deal with US-based Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI) to buy a new supercomputer for advanced weather forecasting. The supercomputer was to be delivered by January this year but is yet to arrive, sources said.

"We have ordered a review and it will take about a fortnight to come up with the findings," DST secretary V S Ramamurthy said.

The issue would be taken up at at a meeting of Indian and US scientists in Hyderabad shortly. Scrapping of the contract and opting for a fresh deal was one of the possibilities being considered, depending on the findings of the review committee, he said.

SGI general manager (marketing) Avinash Fotedar, however, said there was no breach of contract and the procedure of getting export license for the Cray SVI supercomputer from the US Department of Commerce was on.

He said he was unaware of any review by the Indian Government. NCMRWF director S V Singh declined to comment on the issue.

"It is an absolutely wrong decision," said V P Bhatkar, founder-director of Pune-based Centre for Development of Advancement Computing (C-DAC) which has developed the Param range of supercomputers.

P V Indiresan, a former director of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai, said, "It is unwise to go back to people who were far from being polite in the past."

India started supercomputer development in the early eighties after it was denied the technology by the US.

Ramamurthy said Param and Anupam (developed by Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai) supercomputers match the capabilities of the 1989 Cray version for weather forecasting. "We need a system that will serve our long term requirements," he said.

Both Bhatkar and a senior C-DAC official said atmospheric and computer scientists should jointly devote a few years to develop new prediction models and augment the indigenous supercomputers to meet the desired requirements.

They said the "criticality" and "accuracy" in weather prediction as cited by NCMRWF, though important, were not reasons strong enough to give indigenous supercomputers a go by. "A few minutes or hours hardly matter if the prediction is done in time," the C-DAC official said.

The T-126 weather prediction model as required by NCMRWF is outdated as about half-a-dozen new models like T-319 and T-213 have been developed, he said.

Moreover, as western weather prediction models are not developed for tropical regions where India falls, they need modification for use. Development of a model suited to Indian conditions thus assumed importance, the C-DAC official said.

"Though Param was not meeting all the requirements of NCMRWF, given an opportunity, we can satisfy our needs," he said, adding Param needed optimisation that demanded more time.

Supercomputer scientists have alleged that NCMRWF has been reluctant towards joint efforts by weather and computer scientists to develop a weather prediction model for the country and augmenting supercomputers.

C-DAC, BARC and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) are among those involved in supercomputer development in India.

Cost is another important factor, said Indiresan. US companies overcharge, at times seven to eight times, for critical technologies, he said.

Ten years back, the US sold a railway signalling system to India that cost Rs 75 lakhs. When IIT Delhi later developed a similar system, the price was brought down to Rs 17 lakhs, he said. Total dependence on a US supercomputer for weather forecasting may lead to blackmail by the US in the future.

"We should have a workable indigenous alternative even if we buy one from outside," he added.

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