Cray’s Comeback: CEO Peter Ungaro on Clouds, Exaflops, and the Future of Supercomputing
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“productivity solutions”—a rather bland name for what amounts to a more mainstream kind of Cray machine, which sounds like an exciting growth area.
Essentially, this unit of Cray concentrates on partnering with companies like Microsoft and Intel to broaden Cray’s market reach. Case in point: teaming up with Microsoft last September to sell the CX1, a $25,000 high-performance desktop that runs on a Windows operating system and uses Intel processors. Suddenly, this takes a portion of Cray out of the realm of U.S. government labs, and closer to mid-sized, data-intensive businesses that need some, but not all, of the features of a traditional supercomputer.
“It’s not a core piece,” Ungaro says, meaning it’s not generating a majority of sales, but the partnerships to offer high-powered, less-expensive computers are exciting because they offer Cray potential to grow with a new type of customer that doesn’t buy conventional supercomputers. “It’s a fun area for us. It’s a lot to grow our brand, and reach out to more people.” He says the CX1 started selling in volume at the beginning of 2009, and Cray has been building a distribution channel of 15 resellers around the world, with plans to expand to 25 or 30 by the end of the year. “It could become a reasonable part of a business, but a smaller piece,” he says. “We don’t want to become a Dell or HP.”
Reflecting a bit more on the “low-end” CX1 (left), Ungaro says, “Most people would never think, ‘Microsoft plus Cray.’ But we both had a similar vision for what’s important in the market. Not just performance, but also productivity—making these things more accessible and usable by people. We’ve been able to work with them to make CX1 an easy system to buy, and easy to install.” (Though he admits he doesn’t have one in his home just yet.)
Since the conversation veered toward mainstream computing, I asked Ungaro about where he thinks supercomputing fits with cloud computing, the phenomenon in which more companies are renting server space to store and process data on computers operated by vendors like Amazon, instead of buying and maintaining their own servers. “We see it as very complementary technology to what we’re doing. People could access Cray supercomputing,” he says. “Companies that can leverage supercomputing to develop their next consumer product—typically they’re not going to need to buy a supercomputer, so the cloud could be a way for people to access that.”
For consumer examples, he cites auto manufacturers running car-crash simulations, aeronautical companies like Boeing modeling air flow over new wing designs, and even golf club designers making new equipment based on advanced supercomputing simulations. One company even announced in Golf Digest that it had designed its latest driver on a Cray supercomputer. “It’s not helping my golf game at all,” Ungaro jokes.
As for the future of supercomputing, it all comes down to the flops—the number of floating point operations per second that a machine can perform. “We just broke the petaflop [1 million-billion flops] barrier. We’re now thinking about what’s next: the exaflop barrier [1 billion-billion flops]. Everybody’s hoping to break it before 2020,” Ungaro says. “But it’s going to take amazing technology, to get much lower-power technology and incredible scale. A year ago, the total number of processors on the Top 500 list was 1 million. An exaflop will have more than a million processors in one machine. That’s what our guys live for, a challenge like that.”
Could this conceivably lead to machines that exceed the capabilities of the human brain? “People say somewhere between 10 to 100 petaflops, you’re approaching the human brain. We’re still at 1.65 petaflops. The next step is 2. Our current technologies can get us to the 10-20 petaflop range. But then to start to think about 100 [petaflops], we really need a major shift in technology.” Such as? Ungaro says it will still have a silicon-based processor—not quantum computing or anything that far out—but somewhere around 2015, he sees all connections and communications within a supercomputer being done with optics instead of copper cables, which could speed up processing dramatically. It’s a hot research area called silicon photonics. “Optical is just starting to come into play,” he says. “We need to get it integrated in motherboards and close to processors and memory.”
Indeed, supercomputers are the stuff of dreams and futures. But closer to the present, Ungaro remains focused on Cray’s three main business units, especially its newer initiatives in custom engineering and mainstream machines. “It’s been a big engine. We have goals to grow the company,” he says. “We’re on a really exciting path.”