Future Cray supercomputers will have Intel Xeon processors

An Intel spokesperson confirmed to BetaNews this morning that an alliance between the manufacturer and Cray Inc. will lead to future Cray supercomputers being endowed with Intel Xeon processors.

Itanium processors -- which are designed with explicit parallelism from the outset will not be involved in this partnership, according to Intel spokesperson Nick Knupffer. Instead, the partnership will center around what Knupffer described as "Cray's interconnect to Intel's future generations of processor technology."

Though it's not official, Knupffer's guidance points toward a likely exploitation on the supercomputer level of Intel's new QuickPath memory interconnect technology for its upcoming 45 nm Nehalem architecture. This is Intel's long-awaited counterpart to AMD's HyperTransport -- that company's long-time ace in the hole. For over a year and a half now, AMD and IBM have been semi-involved with their own project, which at least at the outset promised to pair both AMD x86 and IBM Cell processors in an unusual display of both performance and parallelism.

It's parallelism that is the key to making any supercomputing project work with multiplicities of server-grade CPUs. While IBM Power architecture machines hold the top spots on the University of Mannheim's semi-annual Top 500 Supercomputers list, Intel x86 architecture (primarily Xeons) claimed 322 positions on last November's list. The fastest Cray on that list was only #72, and was bested by an Apple Xserve cluster.

Up until last year, Cray had been scoring better on that list, pairing AMD Opteron processors with its patented supercomputer interconnect system. It's that interconnect which at one time helped supercomputers run circles around Xeon-based systems; but now, with Intel preparing to ditch its PC-centric front side bus architecture in favor of QuickPath, and with Xeon performance recently scoring well, or at least competitively, against Opteron at the high end, Cray now has the opportunity to leverage Intel's momentum.

"The collaboration of these two industry leaders will result in HPC systems that will help solve some of the world's most complex scientific, engineering and humanitarian challenges," Intel's Knupffer told BetaNews. "Intel's powerful processor technology and strong future roadmap for HPC combined with Cray's leadership in innovative and scalable supercomputing systems will enable Cray to build the next-generation supercomputers to tackle the industry's most challenging computational problems. With our combined industry leadership and technical strength, the state of high-end HPC will dramatically advance."

The next edition of the Top 500 list is expected in June, though the first Nehalem chips will go into production in the fourth quarter of this year. It may be November 2009, at the earliest, before we see whether Cray's gamble pays off; and by that time, the all-important teraflop performance barrier could very well already have been broken.

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