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Cray looks to extend leverage even further into enterprise space — could it work this time?

Cray logoCray is getting harder and harder to define as a high end pure play HPC company. Although most of its revenue still comes from high end HPC sales, the company’s custom engineering group’s services revenues are starting to muscle in on that front. And as the company continues to diversify its hardware offerings — starting with the deskside CX-1, then moving on to the Dell-branded version of that and then the CX-1000 — it becomes ever clearer that Cray wants a piece of the enterprise compute market as well.

I’ve been what I’ll call benignly skeptical of Cray’s enterprise hardware strategy to date. Skeptical, because sales on these systems rely on channel partners — Cray is simply too small to move high volumes of low priced enterprise compute products, and at any rate doesn’t have the skills and relationships to do it if it decided it wanted to handle those sales directly. No one cares about selling your stuff as much as you do, and I haven’t ever seen a partner program like this ever really succeed in HPC. But my skepticism is benign because Cray’s strong use of partners for design and manufacturing as well as sales has meant the company doesn’t have a lot of downside risk exposure should the efforts fail to take off.

Cray has entered and exited in this space at least twice before. The company sold its Business Systems Division to Sun in 1996 (where that technology became the Sun E10k), and most recently it brutally killed the nascent XD-1 effort that grew out of Cray’s acquisition of Octiga Bay in 2004 (although that technology did eventually move into the company’s mainstream supers), stranding customers that made the early investment in those systems.

This week’s XtremeData announcement has me thinking that perhaps I need to be a little less skeptical about Cray’s chances in the enterprise this time. Here’s the nut

XtremeData a provider of large data analytics and complex computing solutions, today announced the availability of the dbX 100 Series of desk-side analytical data warehouse appliances. Leveraging the Cray CX1 desk-side supercomputer, the new product  line offers unmatched super computing price/performance for business intelligence (BI) analysts and statistical researchers in an affordable departmental-sized system package.

This kind of partner arrangement is the good kind: the kind where your channel sales partner actually needs to move your product in order to be able to improve his value proposition with his own customers. In this case XtremeData is offering their customers the ability to run their computationally intensive software on resources that are cheaper and have a smaller footprint than those traiditionally used, putting it within reach of a larger addressable market segment. And the dbX solution allows XtremeData to offer a turnkey solution for its customers: you storage, computing, interconnect network and the database engine. More value for XtremeData customers, more potential for new revenue for that company, and so more incentive for them to move Cray’s hardware.

“XtremeData has created an analytics data warehousing appliance in a form factor never before possible using the Cray CX1 system,” said Ravi Chandran, CEO of XtremeData. “This brings our high performance analysis capabilities to a whole new category of users by offering immediate deployment at a highly affordable price and operational cost.”

XtremeData is too small in order to grow Cray’s top line significantly on the back of CX-1 sales, but if this is just the first in a line of similar rich (as opposed to superficial) partnerships for Cray, the company could at long last be successful in diversifying its highly concentrated hardware customer base.

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