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Dr. Vijay Bhatkar - Father Of Indian Supercomputers

CrazyEngineers exclusive interview with Dr. Vijay Bhatkar of Supercomputers as a part of Founders Circuit initiative
CrazyEngineers
CrazyEngineers Staff · 03 May 2012
Founders Circuit Team
"A successful enterprise rests on 4 pillars, namely, innovation, sales, finance, and management"
- Dr. Vijay Bhatkar, Supercomputers

Best known as the architect of India's first supercomputer and as the founder Executive Director of C-DAC, India's national initiative in supercomputing, he is credited with the creation of several national institutions, notably amongst them being C-DAC, ER&DC, IIITM-K, I2IT, ETH Research Lab, MKCL and India International Multiversity.

He has been a Member of Scientific Advisory Committee to Cabinet of Govt of India, Governing Council Member of CSIR, India and eGovernace Committee Chairman of Governments of Maharashtra and Goa.

A Fellow of IEEE, ACM, CSI,INAE and leading scientific, engineering and professional societies of India, he has been honored with Padmashri and Maharashtra Bhushan awards. Other recognitions include Saint Dnyaneshwar World Peace Prize, Lokmanya Tilak Award , HK Firodia and Dataquest Lifetime Achievement Awards, and many others. He was a nominee for Petersburg Prize and is a Distinguished Alumni of IIT,Delhi.

He has authored and edited 12 books and 80 research & technical papers. His current research interests include Exascale Supercomputing, AI, Brain-Mind-Consciousness, and Synthesis of Science & Spirituality.

He is presently the Chancellor of India International Multiversity, Chairman of ETH Research Lab, Chief Mentor of I2IT, and National President of Vijnan Bharati.

We are proud to present our Small Talk with Mr. Vijay Bhatkar -

CE: Sir, from a small town boy to being acknowledged as one of the pioneers of Indian IT industry & winning the prestigious 'Padmashree' award - how is the journey in hindsight?

Dr. Bhatkar: It has been an incredible journey indeed! I was born on the eve of India’s freedom. Transistor was just invented then at BELL Labs which was to harbinger the Electronic revolution. Both of my parents were with Mahatma Gandhi in India’s freedom struggle. Although my father as well as mother were highly educated at that time (my father was principal and mother a headmistress), they left their jobs and opted to settle in a village called Muramba of 300 population in Akola district because of the call given by Mahatma Gandhi to go back to villages and develop Gram Swaraj. I studied in a single teacher school in the village. There was no school building and it functioned in Ram Mandir. Then I went to a secondary school started by Sant Gadge Maharaj in Murtizapur. Then for engineering I went to VRCE (now VNIT), Nagpur, after doing pre university and first year B.Sc., from VMV, Amravati. When I passed out BE, I was barely 18 then! There was no electronics branch and I saw the transistor as a device only in our second year B.E. We were not allowed to touch the transistors then! I did my ME from MS University Baroda and it was a turning point in my life. In Baroda I was exposed to many diverse disciplines of learning, languages, philosophy, fine arts, music and many more. M.S. University was a liberal and advanced university then in a beautiful and cultured city called Baroda. Here my vision and creativity flowered. After ME I went for Ph.D. to IIT, Delhi in 1972 and immediately joined the Electronics Commission, Government of India. Professor M.G.K. Menon was the Chairman of Electronics Commission which started the planned development of Electronics in India in 1971. In this year microprocessor was invented by Ted Hoff and team at Intel and that started the computer revolution. I started working on microprocessors and our team at ER&DC started developing a spectrum of microprocessor based system. In the 80’s, Keltron at Trivandrum ushered the electronics revolution in the country and we were at the forefront of this development.

In 1987 I was called upon to take the supercomputing challenge. Param series of supercomputers were developed at C-DAC from 1987 onwards. This gave me a lot of recognition nationally and also internationally. Several awards were showered on me, including Padmashri in 1999, Maharashtra Bhushan in 2000. Along with Mr. F. C. Kohli, Sam Pitroda and others, I contributed to the development of IT industry in India and Dataquest magazine conferred on Life Time Achievement Award as one of the 25 pioneers who developed India’s US$ 80 billion industry. I was also involved in developing multilingual technology at C-DAC that dissolved the language barrier on computers once for all. We also pioneered wireless broadband in India. Several new institutions such as ETH Research Lab, MKCL, I Square IT, India International Multiversity were established during the just decade. Recognitions and awards followed over 80 major awards! Of them I particularly cherish Padmashri, Maharashtra Bhushan, Fellow IEEE & Fellow ACM, the highest professional recognitions of world’s largest and most respected societies IEEE & ACM. I also received World Peace Prize in 2010. I also served as a Member of the Scientific Advisory Committee to Cabinet. I dedicate these recognitions to my fellow scientists and engineers who worked with me and to my mentors who guided me. Above all, I consider all this God’s grace. My present attempt is to bring about the synthesis of science and spirituality for the ascent of humanity in the 21st Century.

CE: We've heard that India began developing Super Computer after being denied the technology by the US. Could you tell us the story of birth of Param - India's first super computer?

Dr. Bhatkar: By now the story of Param is rather well known. It has almost become like a legend. In 1985 India wanted a supercomputer for weather forecasting as it was very important for our farmers and for our agriculture at large. Similarly, Indian Institute of Science aspired to have a powerful supercomputer for advanced education and research. At that time only US had supercomputing capability and Cray was the pioneer of Supercomputers. Japan was trying to follow but was nowhere near, quite lacking in software capabilities. Cray supercomputer that we wanted was denied to us as US considered supercomputing as a strategic and dual-use technology as supercomputers could be used for Defence, Space, and Nuclear programs. When Mr. Rajeev Gandhi became the PM, he took-up the issue with the then US President Ronald Regan. With a lot of negotiations, US agreed but humiliating conditions for its use. Rajeev Gandhi then gave a call to Indian scientists to develop an indigenous supercomputer. The year was 1987. At that time Mr. KPP Nambiar was Secretary of Department of Electronics of Govt. of India and Mr. K. R. Narayanan was the Minister of State for Science and Technology. I was the Director of ER&DC, Trivandrum and Mr. Nambiar was the Chairman from 1980-87. Mr. Nambiar called me to take up the Supercomputing challenge. Earlier, I had taken up similar challenge to develop India’s first fully solid-state colour TV, components and launch of colour broadcast for Asiad at the exhortation of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. I was also given the responsibility of developing a modern security system at ER&DC for Mr. Rajeev Gandhi. So I was called upon to lead India’s national initiative in supercomputers. Rajiv Gandhi had asked me 3 questions:

1) “Can we do it? I said, “I have not seen a supercomputer as we have no access to supercomputer, I only have seen a picture of Cray!”

2) “How long will it take?”, he asked. I promptly replied, “Less than it took for us in trying to import Cray from US. And we could develop the whole technology in less than 3 years. And we could develop the whole technology in less than 3 years!” He smiled and then asked,

3) “How much money it would take?” I replied, “The whole effort, including building an institution, developing technology and delivering India’s first supercomputer of YMP capability would cost less than the cost of Cray YMP, including its site, installation and commissioning!! This immediately pleased the PM and the C-DAC mission was approved on the model of Sam Pitroda’s C-DOT.

We launched C-DAC in Pune on Gudhi Padwa of 1988. First prototype mode was ready in 1990, in spite of the fact that I could not recruit a single person for 6 months, including my secretary, due to bureaucratic hurdles! We called it Param, meaning ‘Supreme’ in Sanskrit and also as an acronym for Par Machine. First nobody believed that what we developed was a Supercomputer, as it did not look like the Cray machine, including my computer scientist professors. Then I decided to take the Param prototype to a major international conference and exhibition of supercomputers, where it was demonstrated and benchmarked. And we came next to US and it was declared that India has developed a supercomputer. The following year, we built a full-fledged parallel supercomputer called Param 8000 with one gigaflop per second speed and the US Newspapers had published this news, “Denied supercomputer, Angry India does it!”

CE: Did your team build PARAM 8000 from ground up? Could you talk a bit about the biggest technological & engineering challenges you faced and how did you solve them?

Dr. Bhatkar: Yes, when we started building the first supercomputer, namely Param 8000, it was built ground up. That time there were embargos on everything, tools, instruments, chips, and all components, OS & compilers, benchmark libraries, almost all strategic components of the project. Our biggest challenge was to attract some of the best talents, giving them right tools, training the application developments on how to use parallel computers, etc. But the biggest challenge was to keep all the teams together focused on the mission end goal. We are not very good as team workers, individual competencies notwithstanding.

CE: What is your vision for the PARAM series of super computers? 

Dr. Bhatkar: My vision of Param series of supercomputers is that we must now embark on next generation supercomputers, the Exa-scale supercomputers that can perform 1018 mathematical operations in one second. Recently after initial lead, India has been lagging behind in supercomputing. In the meantime China has taken a huge leap and is ahead of India. This has been due to their 2-decade long nationally orchestrated mission oriented approach at the top-most level, at the Premier level! Looking at this, in end 2010 I had prepared a National Mission on Exascale Supercomputing and had submitted it with C-DAC to Scientific Advisory Committee to PM chaired by Prof. CNR Rao. This mission with an outlay of Rs. 10,000 crores over 10 years (Rs. 5,000 crores in 12th Plan) was approved and announced by our PM Dr. Manmohan Singh during the inauguration of the Indian Science Congress on 3rd January 2012 at Bhubaneswar. ‘Exascale’ is a formidable challenge to be realized by 2018 or 2020. I believe India can do it and I am presently working on its architecture. Perhaps, this will be one of the biggest S&T projects ever undertaken so far.

CE: Does the service oriented nature of Indian IT industry bothers you?

Dr. Bhatkar: Answer is ‘no’ and ‘yes’. No because today we are living in a service oriented economy. GNP or GDP of most nations, including India, is dominantly (over 50%) contributed by Services, and more and more knowledge-based services. India is doing well in this service based economy. Our IT industry is therefore rightly in services rather than products and manufacturing. ‘Yes’ it bothers me because we can’t become complacent by being engaged in services alone. We have to push the value-chain up otherwise we will lose competitive edge sooner than later. We must innovate in services, products, technologies, even in business! Innovation would be the largest value-add. We seem to be getting satisfied with low-hanging fruits rather than leaping to scale higher heights. This is one of the principal weaknesses of our IT industry today.

CE: Apart from a computer scientist, you are also a successful entrepreneur. Could you share the lessons you've learnt as an entrepreneur while starting, building & growing several big organizations?

Dr. Bhatkar: I am rather institution builder more than entrepreneur. I am credited with the creation of several national labs and institutions beginning with Appropriate Automation Promotion Lab at Department of Electronics in the 70’s; Electronics Research & Development Centre at Trivandrum (now C-DAC, Trivandrum) which became the largest lab in Application oriented lab in electronics in the 80’s; then C-DAC in 1988 as India’s national initiative in supercomputing, that developed Param series of supercomputers; then Techno-park and IITM-Kerala in Trivandrum; ETH Research Lab; International Institute of Information Technology (I Square IT) in Pune; Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation Ltd. (MKCL); and India International Multiversity. In this process I have attempted to nurture several innovation-based start-ups, some of them succeeded well, some not so well and some did not succeed at all.

A successful enterprise rests on 4 pillars, namely, innovation, sales, finance, and management. Innovation alone is not enough. Innovators underemphasize the role of sales, finance and people management. One person cannot, in general, have all these 4 abilities. Most start-ups fail because of poor knowledge of finance. So, learning finance is a critical issue. Also, one must be very careful about taking loan and understand the risks involved. Of course, by definition, you can be entrepreneur only if you are ready to take risks. But you have to understand and manage those risks. Biggest risk, as they say, is not to take a risk!

CE: What do you like & dislike the most about current breed of engineers & engineering students?

Dr. Bhatkar: What I like about the engineers and engineering students of today is that they’re young, they have zeal and they have self-confidence to face the challenges of the 21st century. What I don’t like about them is that they are obsessed with their salary package, rather than knowledge and abiding will to learn. Engineers are supposed to solve problems, under constraints, ingeniously. Engineers must be problem solvers & innovators. There are so many problems India is facing, like water for drinking, water for agriculture in places like Vidarbha, pollution of our rivers and water bodies, low cost housing, problems of power in India with long load shedding, problems of climate change, and the like. Engineers should seize these problems and create and engineer solutions to these in a sustainable manner. Lastly, we are shouting about corruption in politics but are engineers, particularly those involved in public life, free of corruption? For professional engineers, there should be a code of conduct such as the one created by IEEE and we should abide by that code. My dream is to see a corruption free engineering profession of which I am a member.

CE: How can engineers contribute to your vision of education to home?

Dr. Bhatkar: My vision of Education-To-Home (ETH) is about reaching education directly to millions of homes, particularly have-nots, transcending the barriers of geographies, economic levels and languages. This vision is to be realized using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for educational transformation. It’s about applying engineering and technology so engineers will play a dominant role in accomplishing the ETH mission.

CE: Sir, thank you for taking out time to participate in Small Talk. What is your message to all our 'Crazy Engineers'?

Dr. Bhatkar: My message, echoing Steve Jobs, is “Go hungry, go crazy and do something that will transform India and the world”. I believe the 21st century belongs to India and by 2047 India will emerge as No. 1 nation of the world. You have to engineer the destiny of our country otherwise history will not forgive us.