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Intel reels in Cray's supercomputer interconnect biz

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Intel really is taking networking and system interconnects very seriously, and is buying the interconnect hardware business from massively parallel supercomputer maker Cray for $140m.

The move is something of a surprise to us outside of Cray, Intel, and the government supercomputer labs that pay the bills at the supercomputer maker. But Intel has been very serious about networking in the past year and in exascale computing in particular and is seeking every advantage it can get.

In a statement put out after Wall Street closed down on Tuesday, Cray said that it would get $140m in cash when the deal closes and that it will continue to develop current XE family systems and future supercomputers.

Cray added that it would have "opportunities to leverage important differentiating features of certain future Intel products" and would retain certain rights to use the transferred assets and intellectual property in Cray products. (This is a pretty neat trick, considering that Uncle Sam pretty much paid Cray to create the last several generations of machines and then let it commercialize them. This is exactly how the phone companies ended up owning the Internet.) Cray expects the deal to close quickly, and hopefully before the end of the current quarter, and that following the close, 74 employees would move over to Intel.

"This agreement is evidence of the leadership position we've established in high performance computing, and is an exciting win for our customers, our company and our shareholders," said Peter Ungaro, president and CEO at Cray, in a statement. "By broadening our relationship with Intel, we are positioned to further penetrate the HPC market and expand on our industry-leading technologies in support of our adaptive supercomputing vision."

This is certainly a feather in the cap of Diane Bryant, the new general manager of Intel's Data Center and Connected Systems Group.

"Delivering continued advancement in high-performance computing, including breaking the exascale barrier, requires tremendous innovation in interconnect technology," said Bryant in Intel's statement on the deal.

"The acquisition of Cray’s industry-leading interconnect technology and expertise provides exceptional strategic assets that further enhance Intel’s HPC portfolio. We're excited about the value this will allow us to bring to our customers."

Intel was talking up how the "Aries" interconnect for the future Cray "Cascade" supers would integrate with the Xeon chips, but to be honest, what it really does is integrate with the PCI-Express 3.0 bus, so technically speaking, the Aries interconnect is less linked to the Xeon than the Gemini interconnect was with the Opterons from chip rival Advanced Micro Devices.

The "Gemini" XE interconnect hooked into the HyperTransport point-to-point ports on the Opterons and has locked Cray into AMD chips – and its supply problems and occasional bugs – for the past decade, causing it grief. Cray broke free of HyperTransport, and did not get sucked into the similar QuickPath Interconnect on Xeons, so it could create an interconnect that would work with any processor, coprocessor, or accelerator.

It is not hard to understand why Intel wants the Cray interconnect. What is hard to understand is why Cray is willing to let go of it at all.

Perhaps Cray has a whole different idea about how to get to exascale, or perhaps Cray is tired of wrangling big development contracts out of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which it has done for the current Gemini interconnect for the Opteron-based XE6 and XK6 supers and the future Aries interconnect used in the Xeon-based Cascade machines. But those interconnects are the heart of the Cray systems and if Cray is not going to be an interconnect maker and peddler, then it is reasonable to ask what Cray will be. Perhaps Super-Duper Super Micro Soft?

It could be that the DARPA gravy train has gone off the rails and Cray wants to focus on system integration and other aspects of the supercomputer, like the operating environment and compilers, and leave the future of high-speed interconnects to Intel. After buying Ethernet ASIC maker Fulcrum Microsystems last July for its 10GE and 40GE chips for switches and routers, and then snapping up the InfiniBand biz from QLogic for $125m back in January, it is pretty clear that Intel was going to take a direct interest in networking as a way to get networking better integrated with its Xeon processors and "Knights" family of parallel x86 coprocessors.

So it is pretty obvious why Intel would want the Cray assets, and it is really only paying pocket change for them compared to its own massive R&D budget, which was $8.37bn last year. But for Cray to give up interconnects is just a little tough to swallow, unless Intel has made it clear that it wants to control this and will do it with or without Cray's help.

Another interesting possibility is that Intel is really interested in building up a patent portfolio in networking that it can use to defend against its new networking rivals and with which it can attack them same. For instance, imagine what might happen if Intel thinks that the SeaMicro 3D torus/mesh interconnect that AMD was so eager to get its hands on infringes on Cray patents? Even if the deal has nothing to do with patents, Intel can now say it has a much more scalable interconnect than AMD.

Cray will be hosting a call at 8 am Eastern on Wednesday (April 25) to go over the deal in more detail. Stay tuned. ®

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