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Cray to use Sun servers in supercomputer

Cray will use the Sun Fire 6800--the most powerful of the new generation of servers based on Sun's UltraSparc III chip--to shuttle data into and out of an upcoming supercomputer.

Supercomputer stalwart Cray announced a deal to use new Sun Microsystems servers in a design the company will begin selling later this year.

Cray will use the Sun Fire 6800--the most powerful of the new generation of servers based on Sun's UltraSparc III chip--to shuttle data into and out of its upcoming MTA-2 supercomputer, due to go on sale in the fourth quarter. Essentially, the Sun Fire machines will join each MTA-2 to the rest of the computing landscape, said spokesman Steve Conway.

"They're going to be an integral part (of the MTA-2) for moving massive amounts of data into and out of the systems," he said. The result is more efficient computers without Cray having to spend money designing and building extra parts.

"In supercomputers, the processors are the fastest part of the package, no matter which supercomputer you're talking about," Conway said. "How efficient the machines are depends on how well the rest of the machine can keep up with the processors."

The Sun-augmented MTA-2s are just one of several new designs coming from Cray, the company that has borne the name of supercomputing pioneer Seymour Cray through years of financial difficulty. When the MTA-2 goes on sale, it will be the fourth major supercomputer design in the company's stable.

As a company, Cray has had a difficult history.

Years ago, Cray Research focused on making "vector" supercomputers, a type popular among weapons designers, intelligence agencies and automotive engineers. But business faltered, and SGI bought the struggling company in 1996, laying off most of the employees in the process and de-emphasizing the vector products in favor of SGI's own high-end models.

SGI, which fell into financial trouble of its own, rethought its plans and embarked on a months-long process to sell off the Cray assets.

Eventually, Tera Computer of Seattle bought the Cray assets last March and assumed the better-known name. Since then, Cray has updated the vector SV1 while working on both its successor, the SV-2 due in mid-2002, and the MTA-2, the first model to come from the Tera Computer side of the house.

But the SV and MTA lines are just two of the company's product lines. In February, the company ended a long-running legal action against Japanese supercomputer makers, receiving a $25 million investment from NEC and signing a 10-year deal to sell the Japanese company's SX vector supercomputers.

Cray also has moved a step in the direction of the "Beowulf" method of making cheap supercomputers by wiring together dozens or even hundreds of Linux computers.

Since a January deal with API NetWorks, Cray now offers supercomputers made of lots of smaller API machines running Linux.

The difference compared with regular Beowulf clusters is that the product incorporates the operating system used for Cray's T3E line of supercomputers, bypassing some of the complexities of writing software that runs across a cluster of many other systems, Conway said. In other words, Linux runs each node on the system, but the T3E operating system runs the entire collection.

The product spread is balanced, though, Conway argues. The NEC SX-5, able to perform about 160 billion calculations per second, fits in at a notch below the coming SV2, which will perform a minimum of 200 billion and is designed to stretch all the way up to tens of trillions of operations per second, he said.

The MTA design, meanwhile, is a radical new design that likely will only be adopted initially by those wanting to explore its potential, he said. It uses a system that can run as many as 128 processes simultaneously in each of its CPUs, he said.

It's a strikingly different design compared with current computers that switch very quickly between several processes to simulate the ability to do more than one task at a time.

The Naval Research Laboratory has agreed to buy an MTA-2 in a $5.2 million contract, Conway added.