Compaq narrowly edged out Sun Microsystems and IBM, each with 21 percent of the market, and Hewlett-Packard, with 19 percent, according to figures released this week from IDC.
"We have four companies competing very aggressively in this market, and it's a very, very tight race," said IDC analyst Chris Willard. "In 2001, Compaq nosed out the competition. However, it came right down to the wire."
The high-performance computing market spans computers a notch more powerful than workstations all the way up to multimillion-dollar supercomputers. While it's not the biggest slice of the computing market, it's important because the cutting-edge machines are an indication of the future technological strength of more mainstream designs.
Compaq also led in 2000, but the margin was slim then, too. "The differences between the top four players are minimal," separated merely by the revenue a company could earn in a good month of sales, Willard said.
The total worldwide market dropped 16 percent from $6.1 billion in 2000 to $5.1 billion in 2001, Willard said. However, IDC expects midsingle-digit percentage growth in 2002.
"We are predicting a return to positive growth this year," he said, based in part on strong sales in the fourth quarter.
Indeed, those fourth-quarter sales were what allowed Compaq to unseat Sun, which was top-ranked for the first nine months of 2001.
Compaq was helped through the recession by government buyers, traditionally the largest segment of the company's sales, said Ty Rabe, director of high-performance technical computing solutions at Compaq. "The government spending has been a stable point in the recent turbulent time," with some buying spurred by increased security concerns.
The private sector now is picking up somewhat as well. "We're not seeing a huge surge, but we're recovering from the post-Sept. 11 trauma," he said.
Compaq, with its respected Alpha chip, has been strong in the high-performance market. But the company is putting anto the Alpha line with a plan to move to Intel's Itanium chip family instead. In 2005, Itanium systems will be preferable in terms of performance, he said.
But switching to the new chip will require customers to rewrite software that Itanium can understand. The customers include organizations such as national laboratories that write their own programs as well as companies that sell their software to others.
Biosciences companies, which use supercomputers to try to decode genetic information, predict protein formation, and design new drugs, have now matched government customers in spending, Rabe said. Compaq expects that ultimately biosciences will move ahead and account for half of Compaq's high-performance computing sales.
Compaq apparently is different from the overall industry, though. IDC predicts life sciences to account for 30 percent of sales by 2005.