Cray: Making Good on Flops

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2002-09-10 Print this article Print

Dossier: Long-established as the supercomputer leader, Cray has weathered turmoil as the balance of computing power has shifted.

The Cray name has always been synonymous with "supercomputer."

In fact, up until the early 1990s, close to 80% of the supercomputers in the world bore the name Cray on their massive refrigerated steel hulls. But the market looks much different today.

While Crays are still used by the scientific and intelligence-gathering community—the National Security Agency still uses several—not one Cray computer sits in the top 10 ranking of the Top 500 Supercomputer Sites (www.top500.org). In fact, you have to slide all the way down to the 22nd slot to find a Cray.

The reversal of prominence reflects turmoil at the company since founder Seymour Cray died in 1996, as well as dramatic improvements in computing power. Cray merged with Silicon Graphics in 1996, operated in limbo until sold off to Tera Computer in 2000, and then re-emerged as Cray Inc.

Despite its woes, Cray remains highly regarded.

"Quite frankly, it's been painful to see what's happened to Cray," says Jim Kasdorf, director of special projects for the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC). Over the years, starting at Westinghouse, Kasdorf has overseen the purchase of seven Cray supercomputers, and several smaller Cray machines. "The company is in a very fragile position, but we're still rooting for them."

Rooting for them is one thing; buying from them is another. When it came time to purchase its last supercomputer, PSC lobbied Cray to bid on the project. Cray, owned by Silicon Graphics at the time, could not build a machine that met the center's requirements. In the end, the center paid about $30 million for a six-teraflop machine from Compaq/HP. View the PDF -- Turn off pop-up blockers!

When the National Energy Research Scientific Center wanted to upgrade its existing workhorse, a Cray T3E, it went back to Cray to bid on the contract. Once again, Cray was unable to make a suitable bid. "It was a blow for us because the Cray is a fantastic machine," says staff scientist Julian Borrill, who performed much of his ground-breaking work on the structure of the universe on the Cray.

There's cause for hope. Increases in defense spending are finding their way into Cray's coffers. The company is in final discussions to build a $90 million supercomputer for Sandia National Laboratories that could once again vault it to the top of world ranking.

"In terms of its ability to crunch numbers day in and day out, it's hard to beat," says David Gigrich, a senior technical analyst with Boeing, which purchased a 36-gigaflop machine from Cray in March.

Cray Inc.
411 First Avenue S., Suite 600, Seattle, WA 98104
(206) 701-2000

Ticker: CRAY
Exchange: NASDAQ
Employees: 800

Seymour Cray
Founder (Deceased)
Launched Cray Research in 1972 in Chippewa Falls, Wis. That year, his Cray-1 ushered in a new standard in supercomputing: 160 million floating-point operations per second. Cray died in 1996 at 71.

James Rottsolk
Rottsolk, an attorney, co-founded Tera Computer, which acquired assets of the Cray business unit in March 2000.

Burton Smith
Chief Scientist
Co-founded Tera Computer in 1987. Principal architect of Multithreaded Architecture computing platform. Has multiple degrees from MIT.

Douglas Ralphs
VP, Finance/CFO
Joined Cray in December 2000 from Interpoint, a microelectronics manufacturer.

Offers six supercomputer lines beginning with Cray MTA, followed by SV1, SV2, T3E and the High Performance Computing Cluster; has co-marketing deal with NEC to sell its SX-6 line.

Reference Checks

Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center
Jim Kasdorf
Director, Special Projects
(412) 268-4960
Project: Uses a Cray T3E900 installed in 1996 for storm forecasting, earthquake modeling, turbine design, protein modeling and other research.

Arctic Region Supercomputing Center
Guy Robinson
Research Liaison
Project: Employs two Crays—an SV1 called Chilkoot, and a T3E called Yukon—for a variety of research projects, including modeling Arctic climate changes and studying fish populations. Just negotiated to acquire an SX6 system.

National Cancer Institute
Stanley Burt
Director, Advanced Biomedical Computing Center
(301) 846-1976
Project: Uses two Cray J90s and an SV1 to analyze human genome sequence. Relies less on Crays today than it has in the past.

Msc Software
Kevin Kilroy
Director, Technical Integration
(714) 540-8900
Project: Supplies simulation software and runs complex simulations on behalf of customers using three Cray computers: C90, T90 and SV1.

Bionumerik Pharmaceuticals
Frederick Hausheer
President, CEO
(210) 614-1701
Project: Bought a 32-processor Cray SV1 in January 2001 to solve quantum chemistry problems in development of cancer-fighting drugs.

National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center
Julian Borrill
Director, Technical Research
(510) 486-7308
Project: Used Cray T3E for landmark research that essentially shows the universe is flat. Reluctantly switching over to a more powerful IBM SP3.

Executives listed here are all Cray customers. Their willingness to talk has been confirmed by Baseline.

Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.


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