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Intel, Cray Seek a Payoff Far Down the Road

You know a technology alliance has work to do when the partners' target date for producing results is three to four years away.

That time span may seem like an eternity in today's computing environment, but 2011 is the soonest that Intel and Cray expect their new alliance -- built around the next generation of supercomputers -- to bear fruit.

Just for some perspective, Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) has not laid out a roadmap that distant; its public plans go only as far as its 32-nanometer "Sandy Bridge" architecture, slated for 2010.

However, the alliance with Cray aims to begin delivering products starting with the supercomputer maker's Cascade platforms, which will be used to solve very complicated challenges like medical research and complex physics.

Neither Intel nor Cray would say if Intel's Xeon or Itanium would be used in their future supercomputers, although both processors are already heavily featured on the Top500 list of the most powerful supercomputers.

While news of the two companies' alliance may seem like a blow to struggling AMD (NYSE: AMD), which has been Cray's sole supplier of x86 processors since 2003. Yet, while AMD has had more than its share of setbacks, this isn't one of them, one analyst said.

Steve Conway, research vice president for high-performance computing (HPC) at IDC, said the alliance may not look good for AMD, but for now it's simply Cray covering its bets.

"The appearance has been a little bad because up to now, Cray has been exclusively with AMD," Conway told InternetNews.com. But he added that it's not unusual to offer platforms with more than one vendor, he added.

For instance, Sun, HP, IBM and Dell all offer servers with both Opteron and Xeon processors, and Itaniums in the case of HP (NYSE: HPQ).

"I interpret part of this as a need to have a second source," Conway said. "That doesn't mean they have lost faith with AMD, and apparently not, because that relationship remains. But you have to think Cray feels better at having another source of x86 processors."

The need for speed

While 70 percent of the supercomputers on the Top500 list rely on Intel processors, both Intel and Cray felt a more deeply integrated relationship could keep their systems competitive going into the future.

Cray said it wanted a chance to work with Intel while products are under development rather than just get to work with the technologies when they are done.

"Ultimately, I believe we will be able to build supercomputers that would have much more capability than they could have if we were just taking their processors and putting it in another system," Peter Ungaro, CEO of Cray, told InternetNews.com.

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