Supercomputers have long been a mainstay of military and intelligence agencies, used for chores ranging from cracking codes to designing nuclear weapons. They have many civilian uses as well, like predicting weather, creating new drugs and simulating the effect of crashes on auto designs.Computing firms are racing to reach exascale performance, or a quintillion operations per second.
Hewlett Packard Enterprise will pay about $1.3 billion to acquire Cray, which has designed some of the most powerful computer systems in use. It will also enable HPE to start selling supercomputer components to corporate clients and others. HPE will integrate Cray’s supercomputer technology into its product portfolio and build an HPC-as-a-service and AI cloud services on HPE GreenLake. It’s synergistic. Because of this acquisition, HPE has access to one of the only differentiated stacks in the market and can now compete more aggressively in those five vertical markets. The combination of Cray and HPE creates an industry leader in the fast-growing High-Performance Computing (HPC) and AI markets and creates a number of opportunities that neither company would likely be able to capture on their own
Interestingly, Cray is actually the second supercomputer manufacturer picked up by HPE over its lifetime; the company also picked up the remaining assets of Silicon Graphics back in 2016. On November 1, 2016, Hewlett Packard Enterprise completed its acquisition of SGI (formerly Silicon Graphics ) for $275 million.
HPE is already the HPC server market leader, but by adding Cray into the fold, HPE strengthens its position against its two chief rivals, Dell EMC and IBM. Currently, IBM is the maker of the world’s two fastest supercomputers, Summit and Sierra. In 2018, HPE ranked first in HPC server sales with 34.8% market share, followed by Dell EMC with 20.8% and IBM with 7.1% of the market. All other HPC players, including Lenovo, Atos, Inspur, and Sugon, have single-digit market share, including Cray with 2.3%.
Cray, based in Seattle, traces its lineage to a company founded in 1972 in Minnesota by the computer designer Seymour Cray (“The father of supercomputing,”). That company was bought in 1996 by Silicon Graphics; it was sold in 2000 to Tera Computer, which adopted the Cray name. Cray was impressively successful for a small company, but it’s more difficult as a standalone company against the bigger companies. Cray has morphed into an integrator and scale-out specialist, combining processors from the likes of Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA into supercomputers, and applying their own software, I/O, and interconnect technologies. The company is currently working with AMD on a US government-backed project to build the world's first exascale supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The system will be capable of a quintillion calculations per second.
|Frontier Supercomputer at ORNL , partnership with AMD|
Cray is currently contracted to build two of the world’s fastest supercomputers for two US Department of Energy Labs: the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Argonne National Laboratory. Both systems, one called Frontier being built in partnership with AMD and one called Aurora with Intel, are promised to bring so-called “exascale” performance, with raw performance power of the excess of 1.5 exfaflops, or a quintillion calculations per second. Both systems will support the converged use of analytics, AI, and HPC at extreme scale, using Cray’s new Shasta system architecture, software stack and Slingshot interconnect.
|Aurora Supercomputer at ANL , partnership with with Intel|
What worries some officials in the United States is the rapid rise of suppliers based in China. One of them, Lenovo, which bought former IBM hardware operations, led the rankings with 140 supercomputers installed. Two others, Inspur and Sugon, were second with 84 and third with 54, respectively. With the acquisition, HPE will get Cray’s current generation XC and CS supercomputers and the next-generation Shasta supercomputer that features a new high-speed interconnect, code-named Slingshot. Cray’s products also include high-performance storage, a full HPC system software stack, and data analytics and AI solutions that are fully integrated.
Most HPC hardware vendors today sell commoditized cluster stacks comprising of Infiniband or Ethernet-based networking. But IBM and HPE are the only HPC vendors that can differentiate themselves: IBM with its Power9 processors, and now HPE with Cray’s Slingshot and ClusterStor HPC storage hardware. Cray gives HPE a unique, technological edge,” he said. “Slingshot provides HPE with an extremely high-bandwidth network for HPC and AI workloads. It enables new network topologies that are required for extreme-scale HPC and AI. Supercomputers of this scale can be massively beneficial to data-intensive industries like astronomy, climate science, medicine, neuroscience, and physics. Increasingly, these systems can be used in artificial intelligence research, which, in turn, can help accelerate many other areas of scientific inquiry. That said, a supercomputer like Aurora or Frontier tends only to be built and financed by the government for, at least initially, military applications.
Thankfully, over time, these upcoming exascale supercomputers will likely be freed from the military apparatus and put to work divining new insights from data. According to HPE, the acquisition of Cray is primarily to help it gain an edge in AI research and the hardware required to train ever-larger neural nets. The company was also trying to make further inroads into the enterprise market, and HPE has experience and enterprise customers at a time when many businesses are recognizing the need to invest in HPC for AI, data analytics, and other business operations, such as marketing and ERP. The requirements in the commercial markets are pushing up into the HPC space. Cray was trying to get into the commercial market too, but they didn’t have the experience to do that, and now they are part of a company that has a big position in the commercial markets. For a lot of enterprises this is a new type of compute, but they have to start embracing it because workloads increasingly require MPC (Massively Parallel Computing). You can’t compete anymore without doing AI, big data analytics, and increasingly, simulation and modeling. They don’t necessarily want to purchase the hardware and put all that together. It’s complex. So if you can get it with a cloud-like consumption model as HPE GreenLake offers, then you turn it into an OpEx investment.
Broadly speaking, major acquisitions and mergers in the supercomputing space are rare events. Due to their ever-increasing price tag, only a small number of world-class supercomputers are sold each year. And due to these prices the buyers are often governments, which inevitably gives supercomputer construction a nationalistic element to it. None the less, because costs are increasing – Frontier is the US’s most expensive system yet at over $500M for the system alone. HPE’s plans include using Cray’s technologies to improve HPE GreenLake, the company’s HPC-as-a-Service offering