Intel Strikes New Accord with Cray

Intel's QuickPath Interconnect could be a performance breakthrough for supercomputers.

Intel has struck a new agreement with Cray that the two companies say they hope will lead to technological breakthroughs in the field of supercomputers and high-performance computing.

Intel and Cray announced what they called a "multiyear" agreement on April 28. While Intel will supply x86 microprocessors to Cray, the two companies also hope to develop new system and chip technologies that will push the HPC envelope in the future.

Cray CEO and President Peter Ungaro told eWEEK that he expects the first of these jointly developed HPC systems to hit the commercial market in either 2011 or 2012, when his company moves closer toward developing its "Cascade" project, which aims to create a single adaptive system that will allow one machine to handle different HPC tasks.

"It's really about us and Intel partnering on an R&D level to build future systems that will really make a big change within the overall industry," Ungaro said. "As I like to say, this will blur the lines between where typically the processor vendor and the system vendor kind of start and stop."

To read more about Cray's moves to strengthen its supercomputing business, click here.

The agreement with Intel also gives Cray access to another processor vendor. For years, Cray only used x86 chips from Advanced Micro Devices. When AMD introduced the first Opteron processor, Cray used those chips to create its Red Storm supercomputer.

Although Intel trailed AMD when it came to incorporating into its silicon the type of technology that HPC vendors wanted, Intel has made significant strides to overcome that gap.

New chip connections, new breakthroughs

With the new Nehalem microarchitecture due out later in 2008, Kirk Skaugen, vice president of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group, said Cray and other vendors can take advantage of new technologies such as an integrated memory controller and what Intel called the "QuickPath Interconnect," which replaces the front side bus and creates a high-speed, low-latency way to connect chips together.

When it incorporates the QuickPath Interconnect into its own systems, Cray will be able to connect its vector processors, which allow for high-memory bandwidth, to Intel's standard x86 processors, which should increase the overall performance of these supercomputers.

The two companies are also looking for new ways to develop software that will take advantage of the different types of processors that Cray will incorporate into these new supercomputers.

The result, Skaugen said, is supercomputers that should easily pass a petaflop in performance-1 quadrillion calculations per second-to deliver an exaflop, which is 1,000 times greater than a petaflop.
Steve Conway, an analyst with IDC, said both Cray and Intel will benefit from this new relationship. For Cray, the agreement gains it access to another chip vendor to help it fill orders and expand its reach within the high end of the HPC market. For Intel, it's a chance to delve further into a market that should grow significantly in the next few years.

Interest in HPC goes beyond academia

IDC is predicting that the HPC market will grow from $11.6 billion in 2007 to more than $16 billion by 2012. One reason for the increased interest in these machines is that many enterprises and other commercial businesses are beginning to invest in HPC in order to access even greater computing power.

"At the high end of the market, Cray is a company that is pushing this type of technology very hard and Intel wants to put more emphasis on high-performance computing and pay more attention to HPC user requirements," Conway said.

Of the world's Top 500 supercomputers, 354 supercomputer systems use Intel processors.