Pricey supercomputers sold well in 2009

The overall market for high-performance computers sunk, but shipments of supercomputers costing more than $3 million surged 65 percent, IDC says.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read

Though most of us had to watch our wallets last year, some didn't mind spending $3 million or more for a new supercomputer.

The overall market for high-performance computers (HPCs) and servers fell last year, bringing in sales of $8.6 billion, an 11.6 percent drop from $9.7 billion in 2008, according to the "Worldwide High Performance Technical Server QView" report released Wednesday by IDC. Shipments were down 40 percent from the prior year.

But one segment unfazed by the recession was the supercomputer. Sales of HPCs costing more than $3 million jumped by 65 percent to reach $1 billion, noted IDC, with many of those transactions for machines in the $100 million range. Supercomputers priced at $500,000 saw their sales rise 25 percent to $3.4 billion for the year.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is using IBM's Roadrunner to analyze tens of thousands of genetic sequences from individuals with HIV. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Ironically, sales for "workgroup" computers selling under $100,000 actually declined 33 percent to $1.7 billion due to several delayed and canceled purchases. That price level of the high performance computer market typically includes purchases based on shorter sale cycles and more cautious spending, IDC said.

How did pricey supercomputers manage to thrive in a down market? IDC answered that question.

"HPC is such an entrenched part of the R&D process in leading oil and gas companies, in government, and in some entertainment and consumer product firms, that budget cuts during the recession have been rare and HPC growth plans are already in place," said Jie Wu, IDC's research director for technical computing, in a statement. "Government and university spending, which together make up about 65 percent of all HPC server revenue, declined less than the overall market in 2009 and with some help from the U.S. government stimulus, funding should remain another bright spot during the recovery."

In fact, the high performance server market should begin to rebound from the recession early this year, with IDC forecasting growth of 5 percent to 7 percent for 2010. But different segments of the market will recover on their own terms.

"Just as the recession affected HPC market segments unequally, so too will the recovery," said Earl Joseph, IDC's program vice president for HPC, in a statement. "Many firms have been so battered that they will maintain capex [capital expenditures] restrictions even in mission-critical areas such as HPC."

Top 5 vendor revenue and market share (revenues in millions), for worldwide technical computing hardware server in 2009.
Worldwide Technical Computing Hardware Server, 2009 Top 5 Vendor Revenue and Market Share (revenues in millions) IDC

Among the top vendors of HPCs, IBM remained the number one seller of supercomputers with a 45 percent share of the market and a 37 percent boost in sales from the prior year. Big Blue's strategy is to focus on the high-end of the market, which paid off well in 2009.

In second place was Hewlett-Packard, which captured a 33 percent slice of the market for HPCs priced under $500,000 despite a 32 percent drop in sales. Dell saw its supercomputer revenue drop by 29 percent but held on to the third slot with a 13 percent market share.

Finally, Sun and Cray both saw similar sales and market share for the year. Sun's revenues fell 25 percent in 2009, affected by both the economy and the ups and downs of its merger deal with Oracle. Cray's supercomputer sales staged a healthy recovery from 2008 by growing 57 percent last year as the company remained focused on the high end of the HPC market.