Cray’s Past Instrumental in Guiding its Future

This past weekend, we used the occasion of Mr. Seymour Cray’s birthday to pay tribute to the visionary who started it all and is affectionately known as the “Father of Supercomputing.”  With a childhood interest in electronics and electrical devices, he began an early quest to create some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, and there is no doubt he has shaped and influenced today’s HPC industry.

As a company, Cray was among the early information technology giants to emerge in the United States and has long striven to provide leadership in the sector. History often shapes the present and guides the future, and this is evident in Cray’s direction. Our longstanding place in the HPC sector has given us the experience and expertise we need to execute our core ideals, helping us stay grounded in a rapidly changing industry.

Barry Bolding, Cray’s vice president of Marketing, recently sat down and answered a few questions about our past and the way it is impacting the organization today. His perspective provides keen insight into how Cray has impacted, and can continue to influence, the HPC industry as a whole.

Q. What core ideas established the foundation that Cray was initially built upon?

Cray began as an organization that wanted to change the world by solving some of the most challenging computing problems that were facing researchers at the time. This goal still holds true today, and like in Cray’s early days, we focus on two key methodologies to achieve this world-changing aim. The first is to design toward a complete HPC solution that combines HW, SW, storage, data migration and application solutions that help researchers maximize the benefits of their systems. We may sell individual components of this overall solution, but the design point holds true.  The second principle adds to Cray’s uniqueness as a technology company, and that is our focus on the customer. From day one, we have worked to be a company that strives to identify, anticipate and meet customer needs.

Q. How have those foundational concepts carried through to Cray’s current vision?

Cray’s vision from the early days has spread into our current vision, and this is clear in a few ways. One of them has been our ability to design solutions around the most innovative processor technologies and our ability to deploy solutions that are incredibly scalable, putting technology in the hands of the researchers and engineers that can use our systems to change the world. The underlying processor technologies may evolve over time (vector, scalar, multicore, GPGPU etc.) but the ability to design productive systems around a changing set of core processor technologies remains true. Combine this with Cray’s long tradition of world-class service, infrastructure and software and the customer gets a comprehensive, productive research tool to add to their portfolio. Cray remains one of the most customer-focused companies in the industry.

Q. What was the HPC industry like during Cray’s early days?

The HPC industry used to be exemplified by companies that built everything themselves. There was far less emphasis on open-source or open-community collaborations, leaving manufacturers to figure out the best way to utilize these solutions. The emphasis was on performance at almost any cost. Cray even developed many of the end-user applications in-house because applications software companies hadn’t evolved to utilize HPC systems. At the time, our big competitors were DEC, SUN, IBM, Convex and Floating Point Systems.The few early collaborations in the industry were centered around programming models (PVM, MPI and OpenMP).

Q. How has Cray changed in response to shifting industry conditions?

Cray has become more flexible and more collaborative with the community, participating in or leading communities like OpenSFS, OpenAcc, OpenFabrics Alliance, and many more. We create solutions that are adaptive to the needs of our customers. We also put more emphasis on price-performance and the total cost of solution, particularly on the total cost of ownership, “green” technologies and the upgrade-ability of solutions. Our customers are the people leading major research initiatives and changing the world, we need to listen to them if we want to create the kind of HPC systems and technologies that will foster innovation. We are a common-sense HPC company where solutions for the customer have to fit into their broader data center vision and not become a burden on their technology architectures.

Q. What kind of challenges has Cray overcome over the years to make it the leader it is today?

We face the typical challenges of any good HPC company – matching our vision of how to provide great tools with our customer’s vision of what tools best fit into their environment. An example was Cray’s transition to the Cray Linux Environment from Unicos. We knew we could continue to build scalable operating systems if we completely controlled the OS, but our customers were pushing toward Linux environments for compatibility with their workflow and data center. Cray knew it would be challenging to achieve the same level of scalability with Linux, but we drove to do this and achieved our goals of creating the world’s most scalable Linux operating system. Our Linux model represents a great combination of open framework with Cray differentiation.

Another challenge is shipping the largest physical systems and the most scalable product lines Cray has EVER shipped. The Cray XE6/XK7 + Sonexion system that was delivered for the Blue Waters contract at NCSA has 300 cabinets of compute and storage and was a monumental challenge in both scope and complexity. Cray came through with flying colors. We have become the go-to company for the largest and most complex product installations in HPC.  We now also take all these technologies and scale them down to the technical enterprise customer, for whom a cabinet or two is “large scale”.

Q. Which aspects of Cray’s history have proven most valuable in terms of guiding the company to where it wants to be in the future?

I think that Cray has always had a vision of itself as a partner to our customers. Together with our customers we work to solve the world’s most challenging problems. The characteristics of these problems may change over time. Today, data-intensive applications, with huge analytics and computational components, are beginning to shape some of the most complex HPC problems.  Together with our customers, Cray will find the right computational tools, both hardware and software, to tackle these monumental tasks.

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