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 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

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“We will get to see technologies at a very deep level earlier in the development cycle,” Ungaro said. “This allow us to connect their system-level interconnects with their chip-level interconnects so we can offer customers the full potential of the technology.”

That means building better interconnects that connect the processors. High-performance computing differs from standard server operations in that it’s extremely CPU-driven, while basic server tasks like database servers or Web servers are more bandwidth- and data-intensive.

High-speed interconnects are the secret sauce for AMD, helping it to become the x86 supplier to Cray five years ago — thanks to its HyperTransport connector, which delivered a higher performance than Intel’s NetBurst.

Since Intel was one of the first vendors to come out with multi-core compilers, it’s no surprise that the company’s software also is part of the agreement.

“We see this as recognition Intel has a strong tools portfolio,” said Richard Dracott, general manager for the Intel HPC division. “We’re looking to scale performance analysis tools and libraries to take advantage of larger scales.”

While Ungaro insisted AMD is not being replaced outright, it still sounds like Intel gets to sit at the head of the table.

“This isn’t about us dropping AMD for Intel for our processor supplier,” he said. “It’s about us and Intel partnering to build future systems that I think can change the future landscape as a whole.”

Meanwhile, Intel in recent years has more than matched AMD in the interconnect space, Conway said, adding that the world’s largest chipmaker is now focusing on HPC in a big way.

“Intel has changed its attention to the HPC market because they believe it is an incubator market for their technology, which they can drive down to their other products,” he said.

“The thinking at Intel is they are not just building in those high-end functions for the high-end market, but their strategy is those technologies will migrate down to broader markets beyond HPC,” he added.

The issue of maximizing multi-core processors, for example, will be addressed in the HPC sector first because Cray has decades of experience with computers that use thousands of processors.

“If you look historically, there are a lot of technologies that get adopted more quickly in HPC and trickle down to the mass market — Linux and clusters, for example,” Dracott said. “It usually takes a while, though.”

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