50 shades of Cray



If you wanted a fast computer back in 1976, you bought the 5.5 ton, $9 million Cray-1 made by Cray Research. The Cray-1 was dubbed the first supercomputer as it was designed to be much faster than other (more massive) computers of the time.

It was incredibly successful in the large computing space and Cray subsequently released a much faster model called the Cray X-MP in 1983 (shown in the picture at the top of this post). By today’s standards, the Cray X-MP was nothing special (it was only half as powerful as an original Xbox from 2001). but for the 1980s, it was incredibly powerful! The graphics in the movie “The Last Starfighter” were created on a Cray X-MP.

As technology advanced, the nature of what made up supercomputers changed as well.

By the early 1990s, CPUs were becoming more and more powerful, especially in the high-end computing space. To stay competitive, Cray switched from their custom computer design to one that used powerful RISC CPUs made by other manufacturers. The Cray T3D and Cray T3E computers in the early/mid 1990s contained up to 2048 DEC Alpha CPUs (the most powerful CPU of the 1990s) connected together using incredibly fast, bleeding-edge switching technologies. And to control it all, Cray used a UNIX operating system called UniCOS.

The 1990s was also the dawn of the Internet as we know it today, and client-server networks were proliferating like wildfire. To compete in this new server-focused market, Cray released several file servers (that they called superservers) during the early/mid 1990s. These superservers used SUN Microsystems SuperSPARC and UltraSPARC CPUs and ran SUN Solaris UNIX.

Unfortunately, the competition in the high-end computing space of the 1990s put a great deal of pressure on Cray Research, and ultimately led to it being acquired by Silicon Graphics (SGI) in 1996. SGI was mainly interested in Cray’s fast switching technologies, which they incorporated into their own products (via a special SGI Bedrock chip). They sold off the Cray superserver product line to SUN Microsystems (which developed it into the SUN Enterprise 10000 computer), and eventually sold the rest of Cray to Tera Computer Company in 2000, which rebranded themselves as CRAY and sold supercomputers built around the server-class Opteron CPUs from AMD. CRAY still sells supercomputers today - however, they are still based on server-class Intel Xeon CPUs, as well as GPUs from Nvidia.