Cray's Super-Sized Desktop

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The trade press is buzzing about the new Cray "desktop supercomputer" as the harbinger of a new class of systems designed to push high-power capabilities down to the enterprise masses.


But while the system certainly is impressive, I can't help but wonder whether this is another case of a technology in search of a function.


The CX1 is the result of a collaboration between Cray, Microsoft and Intel. Priced at around $25,000, the system is built around 16 Xeon processors running the Windows HPC Server 2008 release that can scale to thousands of processing cores. For those keeping score, this is the first time Cray, a long-time AMD customer, has gone with Intel silicon.


All three companies are touting the system is a good fit for startups in the life sciences, digital rendering and other fields that require serious power, as well as to top executives in larger companies who might like to run some of their workloads locally. It's certainly cheaper than a cluster, but considering the relatively narrow market at play here, it's hard to imagine that the profit margin will be high enough to provide a decent return for all three companies.


Still, it's hard to believe that Intel and Microsoft would go into such a venture without running the numbers first, and there's certainly no shortage of third-party enthusiasm for the platform. Cluster Resources has ponied up its Moab Hybrid Cluster software to enable users to shift workloads across the various Windows, Linux and Unix operating systems that the CX1 supports. And Mellanox is providing its Infiniband adapters to the cause, providing a robust interconnect.


Ultimately, proof of the concept will come in the field. Does the system really have the chops to run the kind of data normally found in HPC environments? Or did Cray cut too many corners to meet its target price, offering up just another high-end desktop?


For Microsoft and Intel, these questions are largely academic. But this could be Cray's last chance at regaining some of its former glory.