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Intel and Cray Bring Collaboration Back to Supercomputing

by Addison Snell
for Intersect360 Research (originally published under the Tabor Research name)
May 9, 2009

You've Got the Brawn; I've Got the Brains

Intel and Cray have announced a partnership to begin collaboration on the design of a new supercomputer, which could be available in approximately three years. Under the partnership agreement, engineers from each company will work together directly, with the goal of generating a scalable architecture that will take unique advantage of next-generation Intel Xeon processors.

This is a significant announcement that has major potential benefits for both Intel and Cray. For Intel, the collaboration validates the Xeon line for high-end supercomputing, as Intel sets its sights on TOP500 domination. For Cray, Intel's partnership provides market velocity and support for the company's future Adaptive Supercomputing vision with a potential vehicle for downstream machines.

The joint development of a new supercomputer will also benefit users in the topmost echelon of the High Productivity Computing market. The challenge of efficient cross-system memory communications is compounding with the transition to multi-core, and both processor vendors and system vendors are reaching for new solutions. Collaboration between processor and system fabric architects gives the combined team the opportunity to exploit a full capability set and therefore approach the challenge from the standpoint of integrated system design, as opposed to distinct technologies that must be somehow fit together.

You've got the brawn / I've got the brains / Let's make lots of money
– Pet Shop Boys, "Opportunities"

In their 1986 U.S. top-ten hit "Opportunities," the U.K. electropop duo Pet Shop Boys synthesized a collaborative vision that could have foreshadowed the dilemma facing the supercomputing industry two decades later, if only MGM had had the foresight to feature the song in a sequel to WarGames in which the DOD struggles to upgrade the WOPR.

Back then supercomputers were self-contained devices, and one company controlled the development of the processors, the operating system, and the system interconnect. Today, technological decentralization, brought about by the cost-saving economies of scale of commoditization, has frequently been cited as a barrier to efficient scalability.

Cray and Intel realize that they each control an important piece of the overall puzzle. (In Cray's case, it's arguably two pieces: the scalable architecture and the operating environment.) However, when considering the two conspirators, deciding which is the "brawn" and which is the "brains" is a matter of metaphorical perspective.

In a literal sense, Intel provides the brains of the supercomputer: future-generation many-core Xeon processors with the promise of compounded increases in theoretical peak performance. Cray therefore provides the brawn: the combined muscle of the SeaStar system fabric and the Cray Linux environment (not to mention Cray excellence in packaging and facilities issues at scale and the power of the Cray brand).

Upon reflection, we can easily view the metaphor the other way around. The brains at Cray are masters of scalability, but they have lacked market force in recent years. Intel's substantial market power, and resources, might be exactly the brawn Cray needs to get back on track.

I can program a computer / Choose the perfect time
If you've got the inclination / I have got the crime

For Cray, Intel's inclination to grab its own top-ten hits among the world's supercomputing rankings is fortuitous. Cray has continued to put out new supercomputers based on AMD Opteron processors (viz. the Cray XT5 and XT5h from last year), and yet the company still lags significantly behind IBM in supercomputing market share and continues to face negative perceptions regarding viability. In addition, pockets of traditionalist Cray users have lamented that, more or less, they don't make 'em like they used to.

No offense is intended to AMD. Opteron has made substantial inroads in HPC, and Cray is not planning any changes to its current AMD-based product line. The reason Cray's users might celebrate the Intel collaboration probably has more to do with collaboration than with Intel. No one disputes the raw power of commodity processors. The question is, what could the architecture do with them if the companies worked not as supplier and OEM, but as development partners? Cray and Intel intend to find out.

I'm looking for a partner / Regardless of expense
Think about it seriously / You know it makes sense

Intel also stands to benefit substantially from the engagement. Although Intel dominates AMD in market share across every other computing category, the question of which processors power the world's most powerful supercomputers is presently unclear. AMD got a jump on Intel by being the first to offer technologies such as HyperTransport and on-chip memory controllers, both of which better allowed performance to scale. In recent studies, Tabor Research found Opteron to be offered as an option on as many HPC products as Xeon was, and our survey of supercomputing sites found more Opteron nodes than Xeon nodes. AMD's OEM arrangement with Cray -- a brand synonymous with supercomputing -- is an additional fly in Intel's ointment.

Intel has been making a comeback of late, no doubt aided by delays in the release of AMD's quad-core offering. However, we do not expect Intel to settle for trading cyclical leads with AMD, based on release schedules. Intel's partnership with Cray could be an instrument to capturing dominance in the supercomputing space and across the broader HPC market. If successful, the alliance puts a blemish on what luster AMD has achieved in HPC, which could result in substantial material benefits for Intel.

Intel and Cray did not disclose what agreement there was, if any, to exchange material wealth along with engineering ideas, leaving the final verse of analysis as a matter of conjecture. Tabor Research believes that at a minimum, Intel will provide processors to Cray for testing, development, and eventual delivery, at substantially discounted costs. Furthermore, we believe it is likely that Intel will cover certain development costs through "non-recurring expenditure" (NRE) payments to Cray. These payments, if made, would not only support development, but also provide Cray with the funding that would help ensure Intel had as strong a partner as possible when the release timeframe comes.

Oh, there's a lot of opportunities / If you know when to take them
There's a lot of opportunities / If there aren't, you can make them

This collaboration represents a tremendous opportunity for Intel and Cray, with the potential for both companies to "make lots of money." Beyond that, it is a partnership that bodes well for the industry, as it brings us back in time to an era when system development included all aspects of a system working together in harmony. Ultimately, the success of this partnership may hinge on each party's willingness to follow through. Everything is currently based on promises, and HPC has seen collaborations fail in the past, especially if they were inherently one-sided. If each company shares its know-how with the other, they have a remarkable opportunity to create a brains-plus-brawn supercomputer that benefits Intel, Cray, and the industry at large.

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