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.

Come see me at these conferences in the next few months

I thought I should share some upcoming conference where I will be speaking or in attendance.

  • 9/16 — Indy DevOps Meetup (Indianapolis, IN) — It’s an informal meetup, but I’m speaking about how Cycle Computing does DevOps in cloud HPC
  • 10/1 — HackLafayette Thunder Talks (Lafayette, IN) — I organize this event, so I’ll be there. There are some great talks lined up.
  • 10/26-27 — All Things Open (Raleigh, NC) — I’m presenting the results of my M.S. thesis. This is a really great conference for open source, so if you can make it, you really should.
  • 11/14-18 — Supercomputing (Salt Lake City, UT) — I’ll be working the Cycle Computing booth most of the week.
  • 12/4-9 — LISA (Boston, MA) — The 30th version of the premier sysadmin conference looks to be a good one. I’m co-chairing the Invited Talks track, and we have a pretty awesome schedule put together if I do say so myself.

Supercomputing ’15

Last week, I spent a few days in Austin, Texas for the Supercomputing conference. Despite having worked in HPC for years, I’ve never been to SC. It’s a big conference. Since everyone heard I was going, they set a record this year with over 12,000 attendees. That’s roughly 10x the size of LISA, where I had been a few days ago.

I missed Alan Alda’s keynote, so my trip was basically ruined. That’s not true, actually. I spent most of the time in my company’s booth giving demos and talking to people. I had a lot of fun doing that. I’m sure the technical sessions were swell, but that’s okay. I look forward to going again next year, hopefully for the whole week and not immediately following another week-long conference.


Ben with a minion

Extending rivalries to HPC

In October, Indiana University announced it would purchase a Cray XK7 named “Big Red II”. With a theoretical peak of just over 1 petaFLOPS, it would be the fastest University-owned (not associated with a national center) cluster. Of course, in state rivals would never let that stand. In the latest Top 500 list, unveiled at at the International Supercomputing Conference, Big Red II ranks a very respectable 46th. Unfortunately for them, Purdue University’s new Conte cluster checked in at 28. Oops! Let’s compare:

Cluster Cost Theoretical performance LINPACK performance Cost per benchmarked TFLOPS
Big Red II $7.5 million 1000.6 TFLOPS 597.4 TFLOPS $12.55k / TFLOPS
Conte $4.3 million 1341.1 TFLOPS 943.4 TFLOPS $4.56k / TFLOPS
Comparison 57.33% 134.03% 157.92% 36.33%

It’s clear that Conte is the winner in performance and cost. But what about value? Both of these clusters have accelerators, Big Red II uses Nvidia GPUs and Conte uses Intel’s Phi (which also powers China’s new Tianhe-2, far and away the fastest cluster in the world). Using the GPU requires writing code in the CUDA language, whereas Phi will run native x86 code. This lowers the barrier to entry for users on Phi, but GPUs seem to win in most benchmarks. This would seem to increase the cost of providing user support, but it may be that IU’s users are already prepared to run on the GPU. All of the performance numbers in the world won’t matter if the clusters aren’t used, and only time will tell which cluster provides a better value. What may end up being a more interesting result is the political ramifications. Will the statehouse be okay with the two main state universities both running expensive high performance computing resources? If not, who will get to carry on? Both institutions have a record of success. Indiana ranked as high as #23 on the June 2006 list, but Big Red II is the first Top 500 system there since November 2009. Meanwhile, Purdue has had at least one system (and as many as three) on every list since November 2008. With Conte and the additional clusters in operation, Purdue has much greater capacity, but that doesn’t mean that IU’s system is a waste. I suspect that as long as both universities are bringing in enough grant money to justify the cost of their clusters, nobody in Indianapolis will care to put a stop to this rivalry. In the meantime, it appears that Purdue will remain the dominant HPC power in the state, as on the football field.