CASH-STARVED CRAY COMPUTER CLOSES, SEEKS CHAPTER 11 – March 27th 1995

The Following appeared as Article 9037 on HPC wire on 27th March 1995 recording the end of the Cray-3 project and Cray Computer Corporation.

CASH-STARVED CRAY COMPUTER CLOSES, SEEKS CHAPTER 11                Mar. 27
NEWS FLASH by Norris Parker Smith, Editor at Large                 HPCwire
=============================================================================
 Why did Seymour Cray's company, Cray Computer Corporation (CCC), descend
into bankruptcy despite his unmatched contributions to computing, his
remarkable skills at computer architecture and manufacturing, and his
exceptional persuasiveness?

  How will the absence of CCC affect the high-performance market -- and the
high-performance computing community?

  The answer to the first question consists of a few simple propositions:

  o The world changed;

  o Seymour Cray tried hard to keep up with those changes without
    compromising his own vision of high-performance computing;

  o Toward the end, he tried very hard indeed. Adjusting prices downward
    and yielding to the demands of modern marketing, he accepted that the
    grace, ingenuity and redoubtable performance of his solutions might not
    be enough to close sales;

  o Despite these efforts, he could not obtain the customers he needed so
    desperately;

  o If solid revenue had been in reach, he might have been able to raise
    more funds;

  o Neither hope came true in time.

  Just a few weeks ago, stockholders approved an additional stock issue.
Placement was attempted outside the United States in order to avoid the delay
required for SEC filing. The foreign investors evidently decided that the
risk was too great. Lack of cash forced CCC to close and most of CCC's 350
workers were dismissed.


THE IRONY OF ORDINARINESS

  Two clauses in these statements require further examination:

  "The world changed" and "his own vision of high-performance computing."

  How has the world changed? Some commentaries on CCC's decision to seek the
protection of Chapter 11 have attributed it to a decline of supercomputing
brought about by the loss of easy defense money and the proliferation of
killer microprocessors.

  This is mostly to the point, but supercomputing has not declined. It is,
in fact, thriving to a degree never approached while Seymour Cray and
supercomputer were identical in the public mind, like Einstein and
relativity.

  Supercomputing is thriving because it has changed so much that the old
term -- always half-description, half-slogan -- has acquired misleading
implications. The days of expensive, delicate machines, presided over by
specialists and used mostly by people with exceptional requirements, are
passing. Supercomputing has become ordinary; just another way to do
computing.

  In this perspective of his long and productive career, this outcome means
that Seymour Cray's lifework has been a remarkable success. Ironically, as
Mr. Cray defined the objectives of CCC and the character of its products, it
was unable to find a place in a world of ordinariness. Seymour Cray has
always accomplished the extraordinary and he wanted to do it one more time.


GOLDEN YEARS

  In the golden years, supercomputing supported one profitable medium-sized
company, Cray Research, three Japanese emulators that probably rarely made
much genuine profit doing it, and a few small companies pursuing different
paths, like Thinking Machines (TMC) and Intel's supercomputing (now scalable)
computer division.

  Both TMC and Intel were dependent to some degree on outside funds -- DARPA
subsidies for Thinking Machines and support for Intel's parallel-processing
venture from the central treasury at Intel headquarters where the money is
made.

  Dozens of would-be Craylets rushed to occupy a narrow niche called mini-
supercomputers. Only Convex survived, doing well yet significantly smaller
than Cray Research.

  Thus, there was only one influential, self-sustaining operation in the
industry, Cray Research. It was shaped to a remarkable degree by Seymour
Cray's personal creativity, persistence and skill.

  If one includes the earlier years at Control Data when Seymour Cray was
beginning to establish his way to do heavy-duty computations, the span
extends to almost two decades. In modern times, few individual creative
persons have shaped so much of a significant technology for so long.


FOUR CHANGES

  In recent years, however, supercomputing has changed in four ways:

  o A raid-the-junkyard philosophy has been adopted. Microprocessors, other
    components and, in some cases, whole modules are borrowed from
    workstations or other technologies -- thus reducing costs and making it
    easier to raise reliability.

  o It has become yet another corporate phenomenon. Big companies like IBM,
    Digital, AT&T and Hewlett-Packard are now playing important roles.
    Silicon Graphics, which started a number of years after Cray Research
    concentrating upon specialized graphics workstations, now has more than
    twice the revenues of Cray Research. It has, with considerable success,
    gone into the lower end of supercomputing -- almost as a sideline.

  o Sales are increasing greatly. At the lower end (prices under $2 million),
    sales in the scientific/technical market alone are expected to reach
    about $1.5 billion this year, 50 percent more than the highest figure
    reached during the golden age.

    For years, despite intermittent effort, supercomputing made few inroads
    into commercial markets -- perhaps three times as large as the scientific
    market. Although much skepticism remains among commercial customers,
    significant progress is now being made.

  o Ironically, sales are growing primarily in the lower levels, in systems
    with a few dozen -- or fewer -- processors and various strategies to
    share a central memory. In principle, Seymour Cray would be at home with
    this kind of architecture.

  Indeed, his efforts at CCC -- the CRAY-3 and CRAY-4 -- were in the most
basic terms shared-memory multiprocessor systems with similar numbers of
processors.

  The big difference nowadays: each multi-megaflop (soon to be gigaflop)
processor of a typical shared-memory multiprocessor sells for a few tens of
thousands of dollars, not a couple of million.

  In late 1994, CCC brought its price per GFLOPS for the CRAY-4 down toward
the levels of its competitors, but the change came too late.


ADAPTATION

  This is not simply a reenactment of that great drama of American nostalgia,
the worthy individualist whose high-quality small business or delightful
country store is squeezed out by faceless, homogenizing corporate giants.

  The troubles of CCC can be illuminated by considering Cray Research which
retained the imprint of Mr. Cray for some years after he left it, and
Seymour Cray's historical baseline customers: the code-breaking/intelligence
agencies and the big federal laboratories.

  Since the late 1980s, Cray Research has been seeking to adapt to the
realities of a changing world.

  It has been a protracted struggle marked by the extrusion of two of the
main protagonists: Steve Chen and Seymour Cray himself. Mr. Cray left in 1989
to, in effect, set up his own country store, operated according to his
distinctive principles.

  Cray Research has gone on to expand its product line to a degree that
would have been high heresy in earlier decades. It has now embarked upon a
reconsolidation based on a multi-layer configuration, also pursued by Convex
and other makers, that may now become a prevailing solution, especially for
large-scale problems and the ascent of Mt. Teraflop.

  Some new models even include memory caches, another heresy.

  Various euphemisms are applied by Cray Research and others, but "cluster"
is the simplest description of the top layer of these proposed hierarchies,
where nodes consisting of shared-memory systems are aggregated into a
distributed supersystem.


ANAGRAM OF LATENCY

  For a purist like Seymour Cray, cluster is just an anagram of latency.
Bandwidths may be rising sharply and cleverness can disguise the effects
of high latency, but it is inescapable.

  Seymour Cray has always preferred straightforward, simple solutions,
combined with a willingness to invest much money and originality in the
computational infrastructure that makes simplicity possible.

  His favorite mathematical statement is, in effect: "the best connection
between two components is the shortest possible line." He rejected fancy
ideas like caches that, in his view, introduced self-defeating complexities.

  Mr. Cray also emphasized fundamental virtues: plenty of bandwidth,
especially to memory, careful attention to memory management, and a sound
balance among processor power, memory and I/O. He quietly criticized, for
example, parallel systems that claimed huge aggregate performance but were
so imbalanced that actual capabilities were a small percentage of the claimed
performance.


HIGH OVERHEAD

  CCC was established in the hopes of achieving exceptional performance
while pursuing these pure goals. In doing so, Mr. Cray largely avoided the
borrow-parts-don't-make-them philosophy that now dominates most of
high-performance computing.

  His strategy was to fit very fast processors into innovative, compact
packages. The chips would be fast because they would be based on gallium
arsenide (GaAs) rather than silicon. Mr. Cray chose, moreover, the most
demanding of two basic ways to use GaAs.

  This led to much frustration and delay. Finally CCC acquired its own GaAs
foundry. More time was spent achieving acceptable yields with this brittle,
unfamiliar material. The intricate design and compact dimensions of the
processor nodes required special light-fingered robots.

  Both were remarkable accomplishments, and Seymour Cray relished as always
his ability to reach goals that others had scoffed at. Nevertheless, these
accomplishments were also causes of added expense and delay.

  CCC thus ended up with exceptionally high manufacturing overhead while
other vendors of high-performance systems were increasing modularity to keep
costs down. Furthermore, many competitors were moving toward production rates
in the hundreds of units per year while CCC's costs would be spread over a
dozen or so units at best.

  None of these burdens would have been crippling if CCC's first product, the
CRAY-3, had offered distinctively higher performance compared with preceding
models and could sell into an unoccupied marketing window.

  Instead, Cray Research's C-90 reached the market at about the same time
with similar performance. As CCC spokesmen later acknowledged, the timing
was bad.

  CCC did make one tentative sale, to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
(LLNL) for support of the Department of Energy's nationwide research program.
In December 1991 when CCC was unable to meet delivery/performance goals,
the order was cancelled.

  A small CRAY-3 was later placed at the National Center for Atmospheric
Research (NCAR) where, after some time and effort, it became ready for
production work. This was not followed, however, by an actual sale.


DEDICATED, LOYAL CUSTOMERS

  From his early days at CDC, Seymour Cray depended upon a foundation of
dedicated, loyal customers that could be counted upon to buy the single-digit
serial numbers -- and thus provide cash flow for expenses required by later
manufacturing and sales.

  This roster included national laboratories like LLNL, National Science
Foundation-supported sites like NCAR and, later, the national supercomputing
centers. Above all, Mr. Cray looked toward the cryptanalysis/image
analysis/signal analysis requirements of federal intelligence agencies.

  Once again, these were the customers that Seymour Cray counted upon to
put CCC on track toward customer acceptance and adequate cash flow.

  It never worked out. These agencies chose to stay with Cray Research which
offered similar performance and much better prospects of financial stability.

  Even worse, these agencies became deeply interested in clustering -- of
classical C90 vector supercomputers and, later, of Cray Research's new J90
scaled-down, modernized, shared-memory multiprocessors.

  Seymour Cray pressed ahead with the CRAY-4, an even-more-so machine with
tighter design parameters and roughly twice the per-node performance of the
CRAY-3.

  If CCC had not already spent all the money it could get, the CRAY-4 might
have won some customers away from Cray Research's counterpart, the T90. Now,
no one will ever know for sure.


WIDER EFFECTS

  Most customers and competitors have undoubtedly anticipated -- and
discounted -- the departure of CCC for some time. That would have been
considered an inescapable outcome if it were not for the unique aura of
Seymour Cray's name and personality.

  For most observers, timing was the only question. Now that uncertainty has
ended, Cray Research may find it somewhat easier to sell T90s, due for volume
shipment during the latter half of this year.

  The T90 will need all the luck it can get. The market for upper-end vector
machines has shrunken, due to loss of market share to scalable parallel
systems and to shared-memory devices like Cray's own J-series as well as
decline in the supply of defense money.

  It would be a shame if CCC's technological achievements in taming GaAs and
robotic manufacture would be allowed to gather dust.

  Seymour Cray himself suffers from his status (despite his own best efforts)
as a mysterious celebrity as well as a highly-talented computer designer.
This could be damaging: people have very short memories about celebrities and
even shorter attention spans.

  Despite the unfortunate course of Cray Computer, however, Seymour Cray
should -- and, it is to be hoped, will -- continue to receive respect for his
persistence as well as his imagination and the contributions made during a
long and unique career.

  Above all, his emphasis on the fundamentals on well-balanced systems
deserves continuing reiteration. If Mr. Cray wishes to moderate somewhat his
habit of silence, his comments could be valuable contributions to the ongoing
dialogue of high-performance computing.

  Seymour Cray, like many quiet men, combines a gentle humor with a
well-developed sense of irony. He was probably amused to hear that a hasty
reporter in Minnesota misunderstood the initial news of CCC's filing for
bankruptcy and told the world that Cray Research was seeking Chapter 11.

  This led to much fuss and a distinct outflow of resumes before the truth
was re-established.

  Supercomputing may have become ordinary, yet the name Cray has not. It
still commands respect -- and, at times, can cause confusion.
**********************************************************************
HPCwire has released all copyright restrictions for this item.
Please feel free to distribute this article to your friends and
colleagues.
%d bloggers like this: