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Just what is inside a Cray supercomputer?

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June 18, 2013

Along with IBM, Fujitsu, Silicon Graphics and a few more, Cray is a company that builds powerful and fast supercomputers, and now it's dropping the price on its largest server array down into a more affordable solution that companies or scientists can more readily buy.

Cray's supercomputer sports a new price tag of 'just' 1/2 million dollars. But compare that to the $1 billion-plus price tag on Fujitsu's "K" supercomputer installed in Japan in 2011. So 1/2 million dollars now sounds affordable by those standards.

Cray's XC30-AC, which 'goes on sale' today, is Cray's lowest-cost supercomputer. It has the same software and powerful CPUs as its larger sibling, the XC-30, which typically sells for $10 million to $30 million, depending on the configuration and its various features.

If you were to run a complex problem on the smaller computer while running the same query on an equal number of processors in the higher-end Cray, you'd get your answer in just about the same amount of time.

Now that sets it apart from past Cray attempts to target a lower end of the market from competing offerings from IBM, HP, Dell and other rivals. Those vendors also sell "discount" supercomputers, but they tend to use different components than their top-of-the-line machines, said Steve Conway, an analyst at IDC.

Supercomputer systems are now enjoying a popularity surge for the last two years. Their sales rose 30 percent last year from the year earlier, according to IDC. And Cray, one of the market's first builder of those monsters is riding the wave.

It made $420 million in revenue in 2012, up 78 percent from 2011, and is targeting sales of $500 million for this year.

"In 2003, supercomputer makers were trying to build large systems that perhaps one-hundred people around the world would use," said Barry Bolding, Cray's vice president of storage and data management marketing.

Back then, the market was almost entirely government, aerospace (think NASA) and mostly universities with large research budgets. As Bolding puts it-- "They were wanting to simulate the Big Bang or model nuclear explosions or do things the government doesn't want to tell us about."

Now, companies like Procter & Gamble and even PayPal are buying their own supercomputers. "They have issues that are more complicated, but also because it's become a lot more affordable," IDC's Conway said.

Unlike its larger sibling, the XC30-AC can be cooled down using powerful air chillers instead of a liquid cooling system, which requires special construction. It can also be connected to 208 volt power, rather than 480. Both changes make it much easier for businesses to install, since 480 volt power isn't always available unless your office is located in an industrial area.

The projects best suited to supercomputers are those that require thousands of processors working together to tackle a complicated task, like predicting lava flow inside a volcano or simulating the exact air flow over a jet wing.

And that points to a very fundamental difference between cloud computing and supercomputing. Clouds are typically built using low-cost, commodity hardware and servers. That's fine for transactional work, where many transactions are happening at the same time but don't affect each other. If one fails because a component breaks, the program just tries it again.

However, that's simply not possible with the kinds of complex projects that most supercomputers tackle on a daily basis. Their workloads are all interconnected and synchronized, and if one hardware element goes haywire, the entire calculation -- which might take weeks or months -- has to start all over again.

Supercomputers are also commonly used for calculations that must be completed very quickly as well, such as predicting the daily weather for a specific city.

For instance, PayPal needed a simple method to detect fraud before credit cards were hit with the charges. With its previous systems, the company often wasn't able to discover bad transactions until as long as two weeks after they happened.

In 2011, it built a supercomputer platform to do real-time analytics on transactional data, using a system from Cray competitor Silicon Graphics. IDC estimates that PayPal recorded $710 million in revenue savings in the first year after it started using the supercomputer, although Arno Kolster, a senior database engineer at eBay, said it's difficult to quantify since the company uses a number of different fraud systems. (EBay is PayPal's parent company).

PayPal is now working on a new project using supercomputers to improve its detection of technical issues and reduce downtime on the site, Kolster said.

Swift Engineering, a designer of racecars, invested several years ago in a Cray CX-1000 -- an earlier model also aimed at the mid-range market. The computer lets Swift test the aerodynamics of new design models and make changes far more quickly than when it used to make physical models and test them in a wind tunnel.

"The challenge with computational fluid dynamics is that there's so much more data," said Clayton Triggs, business development manager at Swift.

The computer programs lay out a grid with millions of cells around the image of the car. A 20 second maneuver, then, generates a huge amount of data. With the supercomputer, "we're able to make modifications dynamically, which is important when you're trying to understand aerodynamics and improve the product," Triggs said.

IDC's Conway expects lower-cost options like the XC30-AC to bring in even more first-time buyers like Swift into the market. That's where the customers are right now, he says-- "They're coming up from the commercial marketplace that never used supercomputers before."

And small plane makers are also looking at acquiring supercomputers as well, not just the big companies such as Boeing and Airbus. Supercomputers can help a lot in designing and building a plane that is fuel efficient and safe, while quiet at the same time.

Source: Cray.

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