Cray & Microsoft Partner on Cheap Supercomputer

Large corporations, universities, and research labs have relied on high-performance computers (HPC)--or "supercomputers"--for years to solve complex problems in science, engineering, financial modeling, and other similar uses requiring advanced, heavy-duty computations. The high cost of these systems and their complexity have often kept them out of the hands of smaller companies, institutions, and departments that don't have the budget or resources to purchase and maintain them. Cray ("The Supercomputer Company"--yes, that supercomputer company) in partnership with Microsoft, hope to rectify that with today's announcement of an "affordable" supercomputer, the Cray CX1.

 Credit: Cray Inc.
"Affordable" is a relative concept, but with a starting price of $25,000, the CX1 is notably less expensive than many of the $100,000 and up HPC systems available (and some of them are even from Cray). The CX1 is also designed to be installed into regular work environments, similar to any office computer. The Cray Blog explains:

"Because the CX1 is purpose built for offices, laboratories and other non-traditional HPC environments, it requires no dedicated computer room, special power or cooling requirements. The CX1 runs on power from a standard wall socket (20amp/110/220v). This ability enables even the end user to have supercomputing power in their departmental environment. To keep the system within comfortable noise levels there is an active noise cancellation system running. The CX1 can simply be plugged in, set up and connected to the network, running just like a typical office computer."

Cray envisions the CX1 finding a niche in industries such as digital media, earth sciences, financial services, and life sciences. By partnering with Microsoft, Cray is able to sell the CX1 with Microsoft's Windows HPC Server 2008 operating system (OS). Having a Microsoft-based OS should make it easier for companies to integrate the CX1 into existing Microsoft-based infrastructures--especially in environments where businesses use Microsoft front- and back-ends, such as those based on the .NET framework or C# programming language. The CX1 is also available with the Red Hat Enterprise Linux OS.


"The Cray CX1 product incorporates up to 8 nodes and 16 Intel Xeon processors, either dual or quad core; delivers up to 64 gigabytes of memory per node; and provides up to 4 terabytes of internal storage. Systems can be configured with a mix of compute, storage and visualization blades to meet customers' individual requirements."

 CX1 brochure (Credit: Cray Inc.)
While the CX1 might not need a special server room to house it, its cost, weight, and size indicate that it's probably best to not leave it just sitting on the floor next to a desk as the picture on the cover of Cray's CX1 brochure shows it (and with a rather poor copy-and-paste job at that). The CX1's chassis measures 17.5 x 12.22 x 35.5-inches (HxWxD) and weighs 136.6 pounds, fully loaded. The unit comes with a hot-pluggable, 1,600-watt power supply. Other features include a front-mounted, touch screen LCD control panel; 16 RJ-45 10/100/1000 Mbps UTP ports; InfiniBand DDr/QDR interconnects, Nvidia Quadro graphics, and RAID 0, 1, 5, 6, 10, 50 support or up to eight SAS/SATA 2.5-inch hard drives.

"Scientists at the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA plan to use a Cray CX1 with Microsoft HPC Server 2008 for mathematical modeling and visualization. This will support their development of advanced computational algorithms and scientific approaches for the comprehensive and quantitative mapping of brain structure and function."

Certainly, not every small business needs an HPC system. But for those that could benefit from this level of computational power, the CX1 lowers the barrier of entry with a lower cost, and familiar hardware and OS--the CX1 is the first HPC Cray has offered that uses Intel processors and a Microsoft OS. And even though the CX1 might occupy the bottom rung of the HPC ladder, Cray states that the "CX1 system would have ranked as one of the top 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world in 2004." The thought of all this computational power makes us want to ask the question, "shall we play a game?"