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Saturday, 11 August, 2001, 06:17 GMT 07:17 UK
Cray supercomputers set the pace
Cray SV1
Cray SV1: Futuristic look
By BBC World Click Online's David Jamieson

A Cray supercomputer might look like a set of large futuristic filing cabinets.

But the SV1 is among the fastest computers on earth, bearing a name that has a special place in the history of computing.

This week, the Cray SV1 product line was named best supercomputer for 2001 by the readers of Scientific Computing & Instrumentation magazine.

This is the third year in a row Cray supercomputers have earned this distinction.

"Because we ask our readers to vote for the technologies they use in their everyday work lives, the winners have proven their value and worth to the modern scientist,'' said Kim Sekel, editor in chief of Scientific Computing & Instrumentation.

Weather forecasting

Across the world, Cray supercomputers are used to tackle challenging scientific and technical problems, among them weather forecasting and climate prediction.

Cray T3E
Cray T3E: Used by the UK Met Office
"When you mention Cray they always say, ah yes, supercomputers, because it's what Cray have always done, they haven't built business machines like some of the other vendors have," says Sam Clarke from the UK Met Office Supercomputer Centre.

The UK Met Office has two Cray T3Es to help it forecast what will happen in the skies over Britain.

"There are millions of sites in this model, points at which the weather's forecast, and that requires a lot of memory and a lot of computing power to solve the equations at each point," says Mr Clarke.

Unassuming inventor

Cray supercomputers are named after their quiet and unassuming American inventor Seymour Cray.

Seyour Cray
Seyour Cray: Legacy lives on
Growing up, Mr Cray had always been fascinated with electronics and spent much of his time toying with electrical equipment of all types.

In the seventies, he pushed computing into a new realm of speed and power by quite literally inventing the supercomputer.

The Cray 1 was installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1976. It boasted a record speed of 160 MFLOPS (million floating operations per second) and an 8MB memory. The revolutionary 'C' shape increased system speed by bringing integrated circuits closer together.

To many scientists, he is the Thomas Edison of the supercomputing industry.

The early Crays were brute force computing monsters, often with their own freon cooling systems to stop them overheating.

For decades they have been the ultimate in speed. Legend has it that Steve Jobs once wanted to buy one to model a new Apple computer on.

On hearing this Seymour Cray apparently said, "Funny, I am using an Apple to simulate the latest Cray."

Flashlight vs power station

Cray 1
Cray 1: Revolutionary 'C' shape
Cray now has many challengers in the exclusive club of fastest and most powerful.

Even so measuring your home computer against a Cray is still like comparing a flashlight to a power station.

"If you think about 800 or 900 of your PC's hooked together, that's pretty much what you're talking about for a Cray T3E," says Mr Clarke.

"When it comes to memory, it's probably got about 2000 times as much memory as your home PC, and that's just to accommodate the weather models."

Seymour Cray himself was killed in a car crash in Colorado in the US five years ago.

But he single-handedly established the supercomputer industry. And the machines that bear his name still inspire awe among those who work with computers.

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See also:

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Bringing the Universe to Earth
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Before the Big Bang
30 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
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A 'gift of galaxies'
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