Hewlett Packard Enterprise, not to be confused with the personal computing brand from which it split in 2015, said today that it acquired Cray, an iconic maker of supercomputers with a rich history in the computing industry. The deal is said to be valued at $1.3 billion.
Cray, which was founded in 1972 by “the father of supercomputing,” Seymour Cray, is currently contracted to build two of the world’s fastest supercomputers for two US Department of Energy Labs: the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Argonne National Laboratory. Both systems, one called Frontier being built in partnership with AMD and one called Aurora with Intel, are promised to bring so-called “exascale” performance, with raw performance power of the excess of 1.5 exfaflops, or a quintillion calculations per second.
Computing firms are racing to reach exascale performance, or a quintillion operations per second
Such exascale supercomputer systems do not yet exist, and it makes sense HPE would want its own stake in upcoming “exascale opportunities,” for which the company says there is a growing market of primarily government contracts, currently estimated at $4 billion over the next half-decade. Currently, IBM is the maker of the world’s two fastest supercomputers, Summit and Sierra.
“Answers to some of society’s most pressing challenges are buried in massive amounts of data,” HPE CEO Antonio Neri said in a statement. “Only by processing and analyzing this data will we be able to unlock the answers to critical challenges across medicine, climate change, space and more. Cray is a global technology leader in supercomputing and shares our deep commitment to innovation. By combining our world-class teams and technology, we will have the opportunity to drive the next generation of high performance computing and play an important part in advancing the way people live and work.”
Supercomputers of this scale can be massively beneficial to data-intensive industries like astronomy, climate science, medicine, neuroscience, and physics. Increasingly, these systems can be used in artificial intelligence research, which, in turn, can help accelerate many other areas of scientific inquiry. That said, a supercomputer like Aurora or Frontier tends only to be built and financed by the government for, at least initially, military applications.
The US, China, Japan, and other countries are currently locked in a race to be the first to reach exascale performance, with China looking like a favorite to hit the milestone by 2020. America’s second-fastest unit, Sierra, is also scheduled to be air gapped (disconnected from the outside world) next year, so it can be put to use managing the country’s nuclear arsenal.
The US is in a race with China, the EU, and Japan to build exascale supercomputers
That’s not to say supercomputers aren’t being used for grander scientific research. Argonne National Laboratory’s Theta, for instance, is currently being used to perform cutting-edge neuroscience research involving the mapping of rodent brains. But much like science-based races that saw the first satellites and, eventually, manned space missions, the kind of raw benchmark-chasing with the exascale race is usually reserved for international competition among federal agencies.
Thankfully, over time, these upcoming exascale supercomputers will likely be freed from the military apparatus and put to work divining new insights from data. According to HPE, the acquisition of Cray is primarily to help it gain an edge in AI research and the hardware required to train ever-larger neural nets.
Correction: An earlier version of this story cited the deal as valued at $1.4 billion. That is incorrect; HPE says the deal is worth $1.3 billion.