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September 16, 2008 8:58 AM

Cray partnering with Microsoft, Intel to launch compact, affordable high-performance computer

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano

Cray just announced a $25,000 to $80,000 high-performance computer, the CX1, targeted at a broader market of scientists, business analysts, engineers and others whose data-intensive work increasingly demands more computing horse power. The Seattle super-computer maker is loading the CX1 with Windows HPC Server 2008, Microsoft's latest high-performance computing operating system. The CX1 is built on Intel Xeon processors.

The companies hope this will help push high-performance computing into the mainstream. The CX1 is designed to sit under or beside a desk or lab bench. It does not require special power, cooling or a dedicated computer room and Cray aims to reduce the need for IT staff to operate and maintain it.

Several trends are driving the demand for -- and ability of computer makers to provide -- this type of system.

IDC reports that the high-performance computing market grew 19 percent a year in the last four years, reaching nearly $12 billion in 2007. Top buyers include the biosciences, computer aided engineering and defense.

Hewlett-Packard, Dell and IBM are all competitors in the market, said IDC analyst Earl Joseph.

Kyril Faenov, general manager of high-performance computing at Microsoft, said the "cycle of innovation" in many industries has come to rely on computing power. Scientific experiments, simulations and observations in myriad fields are generating petabytes of data that can overwhelm less powerful system's ability to process it.

"Information needs to be processed, needs to be mined for new insights," Faenov said.

He said Windows HPC Server 2008 is designed to allow IT professionals and researchers to use existing expertise in Windows to run high-performance computers. As Mary Jo Foley notes, Microsoft "is positioning the product as an alternative to Linux, which has gained a solid following in the high-end computing market."

Faenov called the CX1 the perfect offering "to democratize high-performance computing and accelerate innovation for a broader set of users."

The CX1 will be the first Cray product that can be configured and purchased online, starting today. (It will begin shipping in four to six weeks.)

The company is aiming for ease of deployment, sending the entire system in no more than six boxes. Cables will be color-coded and software pre-installed. In addition to Windows HPC Server, the CX1 supports Redhat Linux.

Cray is also including noise-canceling features to make the system more office friendly.

The CX1 will support up to 64 processor cores of up to 3.4 gigaherz each. It will have a peak performance of 786 gigaflops.

One gigaflops is a billion floating-point operations per second. In 1991, Cray had a supercomputer that could hit 10 gigaflops at a cost of $40 million.

Today, the world's fastest super computer, the Roadrunner, a joint effort of IBM and Los Alamos National Laboratory, topped out at 1,000 trillion calculations per second in June. It costs about $100 million.

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