July 2, 2012

Catching up with Cray

Cray is a legendary name in supercomputing hardware. Cray CTO Bill Blake (Netezza’s early-rise VP Development) seem to be there in part because of Cray’s name and history. I’m now consulting to Cray largely because of Bill Blake, specifically to Cray subsidiary Yarcdata. Along the way, I’ve picked up enough about Cray in general — largely from Bill and from Cray president Pete Ungaro — to perhaps be worth splitting out as a separate post.

Cray business highlights include:

I haven’t sorted through all the details in Cray’s SEC filings, but huge government contracts play a big role, as do the associated revenue recognition delays.

At the highest level, Cray’s technical story looks like:

The core Cray use case is to model the world with the best possible fidelity. Canonical Cray applications include:

Graph-oriented systems such as terrorist networks are also now in the mix, which is how Yarcdata got started.

Do an image search on “Cray”, and you’ll find multiple generations of circular computer. Why circular? To minimize the diameter, of course. Why minimize the diameter? So that signals would take the fewest possible clock cycles to get from one part of the system to another, allowing the maximum number of computer parts to work together in a semi-seamless whole.

The Cray-1 ran at 80 megahertz. The distance light can travel in 12.5 nanoseconds is on the same order as the diameter of that machine.

I mention that because, while the geometry has now changed, similar priorities guide Cray’s system design to this day. Cray’s fundamental design philosophy could be called scaling with minimal compromise; Cray wants to stick together huge numbers of computer parts and have them work with as close to linear scalability as ever possible.

Truth be told, I don’t know how close to linear scalability Cray achieves, and I haven’t even heard them frame the issue that way. Even so, I’m pretty confident my formulation is accurate.

As Pete puts it, Cray’s development focus is computer architecture, and especially three specific areas:

The specifics in that that keep coming up when I talk with Yarcdata are:

Thus, Cray’s custom interconnect technology is a big part of the story. So when I read something that sounds like Cray sold its interconnect technology to Intel, confusion set in.

The story turns out to go like this:

Cray notes that the software interconnect engineers it is keeping are more numerous than the hardware interconnect engineers being transitioned to Intel.

I guess if Cray hadn’t done the Intel deal, the next generation would have been called Pisces … but that name sounds somewhat fishy.

And with that, I’ll turn to a discussion of Cray’s data-oriented subsidiary Yarcdata, wherein are mentioned figures such as “1 million threads” and “half a petabyte of RAM”.


One Response to “Catching up with Cray”

  1. Yarcdata | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on July 2nd, 2012 4:56 am

    […] Cray’s strategy these days seems to be: […]

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