HPE acquiring Cray

So HPE is acquiring Cray. Given my HPC experience, you may wonder what my take is on this. (You probably don’t, but this is my blog and I’ve only had one post this week, so…) This could either go very well or very badly. If you want deeper insight, read Timothy Prickett Morgan’s article in The Next Platform.

How it could go well

HPE is strong in the high-performance computing (HPC) market. They had nearly 50% of the top 500 systems 10 years ago. But their share of that list has pretty steadily fallen since — largely due to the growth of “others”. And they’ve never been dominant at the top end. Meanwhile, Cray — a name that was essentially synonymous with “supercomputing” for decades — has been on an upswing.

Cray had 37 systems on the Top 500 list in November 2010 and hasn’t dropped below that number since. From November 2012 through June 2015, Cray took off. They peaked at 71 systems in June 2015, and have been on a slow decline since.

But the system count isn’t the whole story. When looking at the share of performance, Cray is consistently one of the top vendors. Currently accounting for nearly 14% of the list’s performance, they were consistently in the 20-25% range during their ascent at the early part of the current decade.

And while the exascale race is good news for Cray, that revenue is bursty. When cloud providers starting taking up some of the low end HPC workloads, it wasn’t a concern for Cray. They don’t play in that space. But the cloud tide is rising (particularly as Microsoft’s acquisition of Evan Burness starts to pay dividends). When I was at Microsoft, we entered into a partnership with Cray. It was mutually beneficial: Microsoft customers could get a Cray supercomputer without having to find a place in the datacenter for it and Cray customers could more easily offload their smaller workloads to cloud services.

So all of this is to say there’s opportunity here. HPE can get into the top-end systems, particularly the contracts with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy. And Cray can ignore the low-to-mid market because the HPE mothership will cover that. And both sides get additional leverage with component manufacturers. If HPE lets Cray be Cray, this could turn out to be a great success.

How it could go poorly

Well, as a friend said “HPE is pretty good at ruining everything they buy”. I’ll admit that I don’t have a particularly positive view of HPE, but there’s nothing particular that I can point to as a reason. If HPE tries to absorb Cray into the larger HPE machine, I don’t think it will go well. Let Cray continue to be Cray, with some additional backing and more aggressive vendor relations, and it will do well. Try to make Cray more HPE-like and it will be a poor way to spend a billion dollars.

The bigger picture

Nvidia gobbled up Mellanox. Xilinx bought Solarflare. Now HPE acquires Cray (and SGI a few years ago). Long-standing HPC vendors are disappearing into the arms of larger companies. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out in the market over the next few years. Apart from the ways technological diversity help advance the state of the art, I wonder what this says about the market generally. Acquisitions like this can often be a way to show growth without having to actually grow anything.

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