A new deal between Microsoft and Cray may speak to major changes in the supercomputing market in the years ahead.
The companies on Tuesday introduced the Cray CX1 supercomputer. It comes preinstalled with Windows HPC Server 2008, and the various models carry price tags that range from $25,000 to more than $60,000.
What's different about the Cray CX1 compared to other Cray supercomputers is its ability to fit into standard office environments and workflows. The companies said the new product reflects a shared goal to drive high-performance computing (HPC) farther into the mainstream in diverse markets, including financial services, aerospace, automotive, petroleum, life sciences, government, academic and digital media.
"This combined solution will enable companies in various sectors to unify their Windows desktop and server workflows," said Vince Mendillo, director of HPC at Microsoft. "Many Microsoft financial services customers, for example, want to unify back-office modeling and simulation with the work of front-office trading desks."
Supercomputing for Everyone?
Microsoft appears to be on to something. According to studies from the Council on Competitiveness and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), nearly all large firms using high-performance computing consider it indispensable to their ability to compete and survive.
However, smaller companies, as well as workgroups and departments in larger firms, have been hampered by the cost of HPC systems and a lack of access to in-house experts to help them use these systems.
"The Microsoft-Cray collaboration is an interesting example of what you might call the downward migration of supercomputing that's been going on now for the last five or six years," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. "A decade ago, supercomputing wasn't possible in commercial markets because stand-alone systems were too expensive. That is changing."
This change is due, according to King, to x86 computing clusters. A quick review of the Top 500 Supercomputers list demonstrates a clear shift from the stand-alone, monolithic systems seen in the first few years of the century to today, where the large majority of the Top-500 list features clustered x86 systems.
Tapping High-Growth IT Markets
The Cray CX1 supercomputer was designed to address cost barriers. Indeed, the CX1 is Cray's most affordable supercomputer ever offered. The goal was to produce an easy-to-purchase, deploy, operate and upgrade high-performance computer for offices, laboratories and university departments.
Technically speaking, the Cray CX1 product incorporates up to eight nodes and 16 Intel Xeon processors, either dual or quad core. It delivers up to 64GB of memory per node, and provides up to 4 terabytes of internal storage. Systems can be custom-configured with a mix of compute, storage and visualization blades. The system also interoperates with Linux.
"IDC research shows that HPC has been one of the highest-growth IT markets during the past five years, and the segment for HPC systems priced below $100,000 is headed for continued growth," said Earl Joseph, IDC's HPC program vice president. "The Cray HPC brand name and experience, combined with Microsoft's strategy of extending the familiar Windows environment upward to the server level, gives the Cray CX1 solution strong potential for exploiting the anticipated growth of this market segment."