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Supercomputers sold like hotcakes in 2011

Shoppers waffle on smaller HPC systems

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Sales of supercomputers last year were a bit better than the prognosticators at IDC expected, with sales up across all types of systems by 8.4 per cent to $10.3bn. IDC's earlier projections had called for sales to jump by 7.2 per cent from the $9.5bn level set in 2010.

According to IDC's definition, any high-performance computing system that has a price tag of $500,000 or more is a "supercomputer" if it is designed primarily for technical workloads like simulation and modeling. Sales of these machines rose as 2011 rolled through its four quarters, with particularly strong sales in Q4 as Cray and IBM closed some big deals.

For the full year on a global basis, these supercomputer machines accounted for $4.36bn in revenues, 42.3 per cent of the total. Sales of workgroup machines, which cost under $100,000, fell as the year went on and accounted for only $1.21bn for the full year.

Departmental machines, which cost between $100,000 and $250,000, also saw sales slide as 2011 progressed but added up to nearly three times as much dough, at $3.48bn for the whole year.

Divisional machines, which have more oomph and which cost between $250,000 and $500,000, had a choppy year with quarterly sales wiggling up and down and sales of $1.25bn for all four quarters of last year.

IDC HPC sales 2011

Quarterly and annual HPC server sales, by quarter (source: IDC)

IDC says that while there was a recovery in HPC spending at the top-end of the market, where governments are throwing around money to push up to the tens of petaflops for their highest capability systems, the global economy has not yet recovered enough for smaller HPC system users to feel comfortable about making investments that are equally large and expensive, relative to their revenues and budgets, as these supercomputers are for big corporations and government-sponsored labs.

Interestingly, unit shipments of HPC servers fell by 6.9 per cent as companies delayed purchases of smaller systems. Customers who were set to buy workgroup HPC systems have delayed or canceled plans, and while IDC did not say this, there is little doubt that many shops were waiting to see what the new Xeon E5-2600 chips from Intel and the relatively new Opteron 6200 chips from Advanced Micro Devices would hold.

For 2011, IBM had 32.6 per cent of the total HPC server pie, with $3.31bn in sales, compared to Hewlett-Packard's 32.1 per cent of the pie, or $3.31bn in sales. They are declared in a statistical tie by IDC, as are any two vendors that are within one point of each other in market share.

Even though overall HPC server shipments are still falling and the low end of the market continues to weaken, it is not nearly as bad as in years gone by. HPC server sales declined by 3 per cent in 2008, to $9.77bn, down from $10.1bn in 2007 just before the Great Recession hit and knocked the entire server and storage business for a loop.

In 2009, sales fell an even more harsh 11.6 per cent, to $8.64bn, with divisional, departmental, and workgroup machines all sustaining gut-wrenching contractions in both shipments and revenues. ®

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