Remembering Burton Smith

You only need to say his first name — “Burton” — and everyone in the HPC community knows who you mean. Burton Smith, who died earlier this week at age 77, was an industry luminary, a technological innovator, and an open, caring person who earned the admiration of his colleagues.

We at Cray would like to extend our heartfelt condolences to his family for their loss.

Burton was a Microsoft technical fellow and was co-founder and chief scientist of Tera Computer Company, which became Cray Inc. after acquiring Cray Research from SGI in 2000. He was also a member of Cray’s board of directors.

He remained humble despite international recognition, including accolades like the 2003 Seymour Cray Award from IEEE “for ingenious and sustained contributions to designs and implementations at the frontier of high performance computing.” When confronted with the magnitude of his contributions to the industry, he downplayed his own role and shared credit with other great minds.

Burton’s quick thinking and natural leadership served him well, whether he was solving a complex computing problem or shepherding us away from the office windows during an earthquake.

While Burton was best-known for being a hardware architect, he also looked at the broader picture — including software and programming languages — and the important interplay between each part of the system. He embraced hardware-software co-design.

Back in the early Tera days, colleague Richard Korry asked Burton why we couldn’t cool the supercomputer using just air. “He proceeded to grab some scratch paper,” said Richard, “and explained how to calculate the heat transfer characteristics of cooled air and the heat density of the chips. After some quick calculations he came up with the result that air flow of Mach 2 could do the trick, but that liquid cooled would be much easier.”

Cray’s Brad Chamberlain shared an anecdote from the early 2000’s: “Just after I’d started at Cray, we were trying to schedule something and he grinned and asked, ‘Have you seen my calendar app?’ (This, at a time when Blackberrys and PDAs were getting pretty commonplace.) He proceeded to pull out a well-creased sheet of paper with tons of phone numbers, dates, etc. on it that appeared to just be a huge text file printed in a tiny font, and proceeded to take off his glasses, squint, and pore over it for what he was looking for. For someone so technically savvy, it was refreshingly old-school.” But Brad reports that during a more recent encounter, Burton pulled out a smartphone — “which was both shocking and natural.”

Technical meetings during Burton’s days at Cray could get heated, sparked by passionate innovators with different points of view. His phrase of choice when that happened was usually “Peace … peace.” It was his way of saying that he heard and respected each person’s opinion, but “let’s take it down a notch.” He wielded his authority with grace.

As one colleague said on behalf of us all, “He was an amazing human being.”

“Burton made a huge impact, not only on Cray but on the entire supercomputing industry. He will be missed by many and his ideas will continue to be important for a very long time,” said Peter Ungaro, Cray’s president and CEO.

Additional articles:

  • ACM SIGARCH – Remembering Burton Smith
  • Microsoft Research – Honoring Burton Smith, a creative visionary in computing
  • The Seattle Times – Burton Smith, Cray co-founder and Microsoft technical fellow, dies at 77


  1. 2

    Robert Bell says

    I met Burton at a Cray User Group meeting in 2000. He was so smart and so nice, and sang so well with a beautiful bass voice in our group of singers at the CUG meeting.

    Rob . Bell, CSIRO Australia.


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