Cray, Microsoft Team Up to Sell $25K Windows Supercomputer—Will It Blue-Screen?

Remember when a supercomputer was an exotic, multimillion-dollar machine that took up a whole room and churned out calculations for quantum physics, molecular modeling, and other big science? Now, thanks to Moore’s Law and improvements in electronic design, your desktop PC is probably more powerful than what would have been called a “supercomputer” in 1990. Nevertheless, companies like IBM, HP, and Cray (founded in its current incarnation in Seattle in 2000) are still making machines that crank out calculations much faster than anything that’ll sit on your desk anytime soon.

Today, Cray (NASDAQ: CRAY) and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) have announced they have teamed up to deliver a new supercomputer, the Cray CX1, designed for more mainstream users. The CX1 is priced as low as $25,000 (though it can cost $60,000 or more with options) and is targeted for financial services, aerospace, automotive, academic, digital media, and other applications. Its early customers include the Laboratory of NeuroImaging at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and financial consulting firm Milliman.

The CX1 is Cray’s most inexpensive supercomputer to date, and is the first to use Intel processors—and, more significantly, a Windows operating system, using Microsoft’s High Performance Computing (HPC) Server. For decades, Unix and Linux have been the operating systems of choice for supercomputers. So outsiders are skeptical about how well Windows will work for high-performance applications—Wade spoke with one earlier today: “It’s interesting to see what Microsoft is going to do,” said Christopher Stone, the CEO of technical-computing firm SiCortex in Maynard, MA. “They do single-node computing. I can’t imagine how they would adapt to massively parallel computing, even with this HPC Server they’re talking about.”

Some initial reactions from our office:

—Will the CX1 take 6 hours to boot up and give you 100 million pop-up windows per second?

—At $25K, it’s still a bit steep for the Xconomy budget… but I’m willing to try one. The gaming should be pretty excellent at least (and I’m not even a gamer).

—What even qualifies as a supercomputer these days? Certainly IBM’s BlueGene/L, and the U.S. military machine Roadrunner (built by IBM and Los Alamos National Lab). I wonder if large organizations will continue to push the state of the art in computing, or whether the little guys have enough power to create something new that’s distributed and organic—much as hackers invented a type of supercomputer in the late 1990s, now called “Beowulf-class,” using cheap clusters of Linux boxes.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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  • How about posting a side by side comparison of CX1, bluegene, the best desktop you can buy, Roadrunner, etc?