Cray fires shot on supercomputers

Amid a decline in the supercomputer industry, Cray accuses Japanese companies of offering prices well below development costs.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
2 min read
The president of Cray Research and other company executives testified today before the U.S. International Trade Commission, saying that Japanese manufacturers have doubled their market share for supercomputers over the past four years by offering vector supercomputers at prices well below development costs.

The testimony is the latest salvo in the legal and rhetorical war between the U.S.-based supercomputer manufacturer and Fujitsu and NEC. Cray claims that the two firms have been selling vector supercomputers at one-fifth to one-half of the cost that such computers take to develop, an allegation that was substantially affirmed in a Commerce Department investigation and a ruling by the Court of International Trade. NEC, meanwhile, has refuted the accusations.

"Left unchecked in the U.S. and worldwide, this illegal pricing will make it difficult for Cray to sustain the level of research and development required to stay competitive," Cray president Irene Qualters said in a released statement.

Accusations aside, it is evident that Cray's market share has been shrinking over the past few years, as has the supercomputer industry as a whole, according to Chris Willard, research director at International Data Corporation.

Cray had 80 percent of the market in 1991, a figure which shrank to 74 percent in 1993 and 52 percent in 1996, he said. NEC, meanwhile, has seen its market share grow from close to 4.5 percent in 1993 to 19 percent last year.

"It's very cyclical. If you have the hot product one year, you sell the most," he said.

But, in the past few years, selling the most computers has also meant selling below past glories. The market has shrunk from being a billion-dollar industry to accounting for only $561 million in sales last year. "We don't see it returning to the '93-'94 levels," Willard said.

The $561 million in sales accounted for only 109 computers. In fact, there are actually only four manufacturers of supercomputers and the fourth, Hitachi, is currently exiting the market.

The decline mostly stems from the fact that computer makers have been able to bring increased capacity down the food chain. In 1978, a Cray supercomputer had a clock speed of 80 MHz and contained 8MB of memory, he said. Nearly all consumer computers now surpass those benchmarks.

To mitigate against obsolescence, research institutions and large manufacturers are increasingly opting to buy high-end RISC machines, such as the IBM RS/6000, rather than supercomputers. These computers can cost over $100,000, well below the average supercomputer price of over $5 million.

A ruling from the ITC is expected in September. If the court rules in favor of Cray, it can impose tariffs on future imports of supercomputers from NEC and Fujitsu into the U.S.