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Cray to woo DARPA and others with server candy store

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Anyone watching Cray slog it out in the supercomputing marketing probably saw this coming. The company has decided to converge its four, separate product lines and center them around some common technology. In so doing, the cash-strapped Cray expects to save money on hardware design costs and to offer customers gear at a more affordable price.

Key to Cray's shift toward "adaptive supercomputing" will be its embrace of blade-server like technology. Instead of having unique systems running on standard (scalar), vector, multi-threaded and FPGA processors, Cray will build a single chassis and then slot processing blades into this system as ordered by customers. At the heart of the common hardware system will be Cray's I/O and networking technology.

Cray expects these new blades to go on sale around 2008 but doesn't plan to stop advancing this "bet the company plan" there. As part of its "Cascade" project bid for a lucrative DARPA contract, Cray is working on software that will break up workloads and automatically spread jobs across the different types of blades, depending on which system can crank through the code fastest. This type of technology should arrive around 2010, although bringing it to fruition will likely depend on whether or not Cray gets a piece of the $200m or more DARPA handout.

Cray currently sells four different types of systems - the XT3 (Opteron), X1E (vector), MTA (multi-threaded) and XD1 (FPGA accelerators).

The problem with this diverse lineup is that it actually prohibits some customers from buying the types of systems they really want, according to Cray SVP Jan Silverman.

A customer might, for example, want to base its purchase around the speedy XT3 box but still need a vector machine to handle certain jobs. So far, this has required the purchase of an entire vector system at a pretty high cost. Customers often can't afford to buy both sets of kit, and end up passing on the the vector gear.

Cray's upcoming architecture could help solve this problem.

"Instead of spending about $1m on an entire vector machine, the customer can buy our cluster and fill it mostly full of Opteron blades and then - for $25,000 - throw a vector machine in there as well," Silverman said.

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