The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer

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The failed follow-on to the , the CDC , was the project that finally ended his run of successes at CDC in Although the and had been huge successes in the end, both projects had almost bankrupted the company while they were being designed. The was running into similar difficulties and Cray eventually decided that the only solution was to start over fresh. Norris said he was willing to keep the project alive at a low level until the STAR was delivered, at which point full funding could be put into the Cray was unwilling to work under these conditions and left the company.

At first there was some question as to what exactly the new company should do.

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It did not seem that there would be any way for them to afford to develop a new computer, given that the now-large CDC had been unable to support more than one. When the President in charge of financing traveled to Wall Street to look for seed money , he was surprised to find that Cray's reputation was very well known.

Far from struggling for some role to play in the market, the financial world was more than willing to provide Cray with all the money they would need to develop a new machine. After several years of development, their first product was released in as the Cray As with earlier Cray designs, the Cray-1 made sure that the entire computer was fast, as opposed to just the processor.

The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer

When it was released it easily beat almost every machine in terms of speed, including the STAR that had beaten the for funding. The only machine able to perform on the same sort of level was the ILLIAC IV , a specialized one-off machine that rarely operated near its maximum performance, except on very specific tasks. In general, the Cray-1 beat anything on the market by a wide margin.

The company's early estimates had suggested that they might sell a dozen such machines, based on sales of similar machines from the CDC era, so the price was set accordingly. Eventually, well over 80 Cray-1s were sold, and the company was a huge success financially. Follow-up success was not as easy. When the Cray-2 was finally released after six years of development it was only marginally faster than the X-MP, largely due to very fast and large main memory, and thus sold in much smaller numbers.

As the Cray-3 project started, he found himself once again being "bothered" too much with day-to-day tasks. In order to concentrate on design, Cray left the CEO position of Cray Research in to become an independent contractor.

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In Cray was faced with a repeat of history when the Cray-3 started to run into difficulties. An upgrade of the X-MP using high-speed memory from the Cray-2 was under development and seemed to be making real progress, and once again management was faced with two projects and limited budgets. They eventually decided to take the safer route, releasing the new design as the Cray Y-MP. This new entity took the Cray-3 project with them.

In order to provide the tenfold increase in performance that he always demanded of his newest machines, Cray decided that the machine would have to be built using gallium arsenide semiconductors. In this case, Cray was developing every part of the machine, even the chips inside it. Nevertheless, the team were able to get the machine working and delivered their first example to NCAR on 24 May The machine was still essentially a prototype, and the company was using the installation to debug the design.

In there had been no further sales of the Cray-3, and the ending of the Cold War made it unlikely anyone would buy enough Cray-4s to offer a return on the development funds. The company ran out of money and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy 24 March Cray had always resisted the massively parallel solution to high-speed computing, offering a variety of reasons that it would never work as well as one very fast processor.

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He famously quipped "If you were plowing a field, which would you rather use: two strong oxen or chickens? Cray set up a new company, SRC Computers , and started the design of his own massively parallel machine. The new design concentrated on communications and memory performance, the bottleneck that hampered many parallel designs. Design had just started when Cray died suddenly as a result of a car accident. SRC Computers carried on development and specialized in reconfigurable computing. Cray frequently cited two important aspects to his design philosophy: remove heat, and ensure that all signals that are supposed to arrive somewhere at the same time do indeed arrive at the same time.

His computers were equipped with built-in cooling systems, extending ultimately to coolant channels cast into the mainframes and thermally coupled to metal plates within the circuit boards, and to systems immersed in coolants. In a story he told about himself, he realized early in his career that he should interlock the computers with the cooling systems so that the computers would not operate unless the cooling systems were operational. Cray addressed the problem of skew by ensuring that every signal path in his later computers was the same electrical length, so that values that were to be acted upon at a particular time were indeed all valid values.

When required, he would run the traces back and forth on the circuit boards until the desired length was achieved, and he employed Maxwell's equations in design of the boards to ensure that any radio frequency effects which altered the signal velocity and hence the electrical path length were accounted for. When asked what kind of CAD tools he used for the Cray-1, Cray said that he liked 3 pencils with quad paper pads. When he was told that Apple Computer had just bought a Cray to help design the next Apple Macintosh , Cray commented that he had just bought a Macintosh to design the next Cray.

Cray avoided publicity, and there are a number of unusual tales about his life away from work, termed "Rollwagenisms", from then-CEO of Cray Research, John A. He enjoyed skiing , windsurfing , tennis , and other sports. Another favorite pastime was digging a tunnel under his home; he attributed the secret of his success to "visits by elves " while he worked in the tunnel: "While I'm digging in the tunnel, the elves will often come to me with solutions to my problem.

Cray was, at heart, an engineer's engineer, and he never fully bought in to the traditional corporate culture, making him something of a hero to other engineers.

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One story has it that when Cray was asked by management to provide detailed one-year and five-year plans for his next machine, he simply wrote, "Five-year goal: Build the biggest computer in the world. One year goal: One-fifth of the above. There have been no significant changes or deviations from the June plan. Cray died on October 5, , two weeks after his automobile was struck on the highway and rolled several times. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Seymour Cray. Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin , US. Colorado Springs, Colorado , US.


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