Cray teams with Microsoft on new computer prototype

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The Custom Engineering team was formed at Cray to help the company capitalize on its smarts. The idea is that the company has banked a lot of specialized experience related to datacenters and building computers over the decades, and that there is no sense leaving that talent sitting around between gigs inside the company. The team has done well since it was announced back in April of 2009: CEO Pete Ungaro told me back in November that the team was adding real value

Cray logoThe idea has been well-received. “Custom engineering has grown to a $30+M business from $0 in just over one year,” according to Ungaro.

Ungaro also went on to say

“I don’t only think of us as a supercomputer company,” he says. “I think of us a supercomputing innovation company. If we can remove the barriers to people using Cray technology, we can continue to make gains in the market.”

Which brings us to today’s announcement. Cray is announcing that its Custom Engineering team is partnering with Microsoft to prototype a new computing system aimed squarely at the datacenter

Microsoft logoThe objective of the technology development initiative is to design a supercomputing architecture that dramatically lowers the total cost of ownership for cloud computing data centers. Cray’s custom engineering group will design a system infrastructure that combines super efficient power delivery, high-density packaging and innovative cooling technologies. This solution is intended to significantly reduce facility, power and hardware costs.

“This is an ideal project for our custom engineering group as it allows us to leverage our company’s intellectual property in system design and, most specifically, packaging and system infrastructure,” said Chuck Morreale, Cray’s vice president of custom engineering. “In addition to being an important opportunity for Cray, the results of the project have the potential to deliver significant cost savings for operating a cloud computing data center. We are excited to be working with Microsoft, and we are eager to apply our proven, industry-leading expertise to this project.”

Enterprise song, third verse

Cray has aimed at the datacenter before, and both times it got out of the business. In 1991 it gobbled up Floating Point Systems and used the technology to launch Cray Research Superservers in 1993; that division was later renamed Cray Business Systems Division and then sold to Sun for $50M in 1996. Once at Sun the technology became the Sun E10K. The second time was when Cray bought OctigaBay in $107M (getting them into the AMD business) and developed the XD1. Sale of this system was abruptly discontinued in 2006 as the company shifted to focus exclusively on the high end of HPC.

What’s different this time? The engagement isn’t about creating a product — at least not on the surface. While its anyone’s guess as to whether Cray secretly harbors dreams of making a go of it in the enterprise space again, this deal is about what the Custom Engineering team was designed to do: monetize Cray’s smarts. This is a good win for the company, and signals that the relationship with Microsoft is much stronger than simply running the company’s OS on its deskside boxes.