Asia's fastest supercomputer props up Indian animation


By Money Sharma & Mrigank Dhaniwala Bollywood Hungama News Network

What can simulate crash tests for automobiles, aid designing of aircrafts, fasten the process of drug discovery, simulate oil fields for multi-nationals and help render high-end 3D graphics? It's 'Eka' (Sanskrit for 'the one'), a supercomputer in Pune, India.

Set up by Computational Research Laboratories Ltd. (CRL), a wholly owned subsidiary of Tata Sons Ltd., Eka is the largest and fastest computational cluster available for commercial use in the world. Unveiled at the Supercomputing Conference in November 2007, it was ranked the fourth fastest in the world. The system has a peak compute power of 172 TeraFlops (one TeraFlops is the ability to do one trillion calculations per second) generated by 1800 compute servers working in unison.

Most recently used for rendering Yash Raj Film's Roadside Romeo - India's first international quality 3D animation film - over a span of just 5 months, Eka can be used to reduce rendering times for animation frames, computer generated imagery (CGI), visual effects (vfx) and compositing in the domains of high end 3D modelling, 2D & 3D animation and game asset development.

As opposed to rendering on conventional renderfarms, Eka gives an overall cycle time reduction by around 85%, according to internal tests. For instance, with Roadside Romeo's trailer, where every frame took 35-40 minutes to render on a renderfarm, the average rendering time came down to 5 minutes at CRL. No wonder that the vfx-heavy The Lord Of The Rings was rendered on the world's fastest supercomputer in New Zealand.

But what really is a supercomputer? It is essentially a number of servers put together talking to each other at high speeds, an environment where one can run multiple computations in parallel and therefore get more output. Spread over an area of 4000 sq ft, Eka is a supercomputer made up of 1800 servers - interconnected with high speed interconnect of 20 Gbps, plus a central storage capacity of 80 TeraBytes. The supercomputer is the nerve center of technology- temperatures are maintained in the range of 18-20 degrees, 25 engineers monitor its functioning and fire alarms and power backup are on standby 24x7.

So you have 32 servers per rack; each server with Dual Intel Xeon quad core 3 GHz CPUs with 16 GB of RAM and a total of 57 populated racks. If you are good at number crunching here's some more- essentially each server has 8 CPUs and each rack has 256 CPUs. The approximate length of cables connecting the whole thing is 14 km!

The making
Eka's establishment is historical for India as it is the country's first indigenously designed world class supercomputer. CRL started out as company in 2006 and the design was ready by August next year. In a show of technical ingenuity, the wizards at CRL assembled the supercomputer and made it functional in a short period of six weeks; ready for its first LINPACK test in October 2007.

Eka clocked 117 TeraFlops in October 2007 and was declared the 4th fastest supercomputer in the world and the fastest in Asia. In a subsequent test in June 2008, the cluster's speed was increased by 15 Teraflops, a feat accomplished by optimizing on the available hardware.

Remote rendering
Who can use the supercomputer? Basically anyone with a good broadband connection can use the system by firing jobs remotely and achieve good price performance. CRL provides a dual authentication secure virtual private network (VPN) tunnel for remote access and a secure FTP for file upload/download. Post completion of the initial setup, the job submission and monitoring process can all be done remotely. The central storage capacity of 80 TeraBytes is available to all the compute nodes and tape back-ups are taken on a daily basis to ensure redundancy.

CRL provisions a part of the infrastructure, which includes computer nodes, storage and shared internet bandwidth, as per the user requirements. The user is given complete control to his space to ensure security and integrity. Users have a choice of selecting between multiple operating systems including Windows and Linux. Since CRL has the ability to provide an on-demand bandwidth - ranging between 50-100 Mbps to enable customers to remotely upload and download huge data files - consumers can have access to a high performance computing facility practically from their desktops.

CRL's clients include Tata Elxsi VCL, Tata Motors, National Aerospace Laboratories, Advinus' Pharmaceutical, ISRO and others in the automotive, aerospace, life sciences and animation sectors. For animation, CRL supports Maya 7.0, 8.5 and 2008; Renderman; Studio 1.0.1 and ProServer 13.5.4; Smedge Job Manager; Mental Ray; Shave and Haircut; 3DS Max 2009 and XSi 7.0.

As more and more animation and production studios avail of Eka's high computational prowess, the future for Indian animation seems bright, technologically, at least.