As analysts predict a revival in the supercomputer market, two companies founded by the pioneer of the breed, Seymour Cray, are set to fight it out with new machines.
Cray Research, now owned by Silicon Graphics (SGI), will launch a 1,024-processor high end machine for the scientific and number crunching sectors. Despite SGI's recent decision to move away from its own Mips architecture to base future machines on the forthcoming Intel Merced processor, Cray is sticking to its own proprietary processor design.
Ironically, another company founded by Seymour Cray, SRC Computers, is using Merced for its own parallel design. Founded just before Cray died in 1996, Colorado based SRC expects to ship its first products next year, incorporating a unique memory architecture designed by Cray himself, which promises very efficient use of memory and very fast access from processors.
The Cray Research machine, the SV1, will ship in 2000 and replace the current T90 and V90 vector lines. It will be more scalable, but machines with smaller numbers of processors can also be sold to scientific departments or commercial sites, claims Cray.
Its planned successor, the SV2, will use Intel Merced microprocessors to manage subsystems such as memory and I/O, but will run on a CPU custom designed by SGI. There will also be a flexible 'single image' memory design, allowing thousands of processors to access the fastest memory location available at the time. This offers 100 times better memory management than a conventional parallel system, claims Cray.
Meanwhile the SRC-6 is being developed using Intel Pentium Pro chips but will move to Merced before it ships. The designers' key aim has been to balance processor power, memory capacity, bandwidth and throughput to minimise bottlenecks.
This burst of activity comes as the prospects for the supercomputer market look rosier than for several years, and when the two Cray spin-offs, along with Intel and IBM, are the last real US bastion against Japanese rivals, particularly NEC, in this sector.
Silicon Graphics claims the market has stabilised after declining throughout the 1990s, and believes US and European government procurement alone will gross half a billion dollars for the various suppliers by the end of the decade.
The US vendors have an advantage when bidding for US federal business because Japanese competitors have to pay anti-dumping tariffs on any supers they sell into the country, which can be as high as 450 per cent.
Although many server makers now use supercomputer technology in mainstream products - Sun, for instance, bought designs from another Seymour Cray company, Cray Computing, for its top end servers - only a handful of suppliers focus on the supercomputers' heartland, the scientific and academic institutions whose number crunching requirements still far surpass the abilities of silicon.
For such sites, a computer delivering 1Tflops of processing power is already available from Intel and both Cray and IBM will break the 3Tflops barrier this year.
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