— For PGS, an oil-imaging company in Oslo, Norway,
finding pockets of oil and natural gas in the ground
essentially starts by taking a large ultrasound picture
involves huge amounts of data," said Guillaume
Cambois, PGS’ executive vice president of imaging and
engineering. "And, of course, time is of the
short for Petroleum Geo-Services, this year tried to
speed up that work by buying a supercomputer built by
Seattle-based Cray. The computer, housed in several
pantrylike cabinets, takes PGS’ massive library of
images and data, and applies algorithms to get
crystal-clear pictures that speed the complex task of
is one of the several businesses that have been buying
Cray’s supercomputers, a shift for a company that has
traditionally sold to government agencies and academic
institutions. Cray says 15 percent of its revenue last
year, expected to fall between $720 million and $725
million, came from sales to businesses. That’s double
the percentage from 2014.
shift comes at a time when demand for cloud computing
— which allows businesses access to greatly expanded
computing power — is rising as corporate big-data
needs increase. But demand for supercomputers is also
strong; the massive pieces of technology do some things
that the cloud just can’t.
isn’t alone in this. At IBM, sales grew last year for
just one of its more than a dozen lines of business,
according to estimates by investment bank UBS. That
would be mainframes, the giant computers with tons of
processing power that Big Blue has been selling for
decades. Sales by IBM’s System Z unit soared 30
percent, to $2.8 billion, UBS estimates.
firm IDC says sales of high-performance computers
reached $10.22 billion in 2014 and estimates the market
will grow 8.6 percent a year in the following 5 years,
topping $15 billion in 2019.
uptick in sales of giant computers by Cray, IBM and
others bucks decades of struggles to compete with
smaller computers and the cloud. It’s also a reminder
that established technologies sometimes show surprising
staying power in the face of rapid change.
history of technology is largely a story of new
innovations competing to elbow out the old. Personal
computers were the death knell for the typewriter. The
iPhone started a wave of change that would dethrone
cellular-phone giants Nokia and BlackBerry.
Seattle area, home to Amazon Web Services and Microsoft’s
Azure platform, is the epicenter of what technology
analysts say is a once-in-a-generation shift in how
people and businesses deal with their digital goods.
that move toward cloud computing, or using giant data
centers to store data and run software programs, hasn’t
spelled the end of the line for the business of selling
Jefferies analysts noted after IBM reported its
fourth-quarter financial results recently, "the
entire world is not moving to the cloud all at
some companies with heavy-duty computing needs,
"the economics don’t make sense" to move to
the cloud, said Donna Dillenberger, a technical fellow
with IBM who specializes in business-focused computer
systems. "It would be cheaper to have their own
on-premise data center."
buyers of mainframes or other high-performance computers
belong to industries like insurance or finance. Because
of regulatory or other restrictions on how they use
data, they tend to remain plugged in to powerful
computers they own and operate themselves.
other cases, complicated software developed over decades
would be tough to rework for the cloud. That includes
things like airline-reservation systems or complex
logistics and scheduling software for railroads or
are a lot of applications running on mainframes that
have been there for a long time and are hard to
move," said Mark Russinovich, chief technology
officer of Microsoft’s Azure unit.
and rival Amazon.com are introducing increasingly
powerful computers that customers can rent, but analysts
say high-performance computers can clear technical
hurdles that most "public clouds" of pooled
Conway, an analyst with IDC, said the cloud is great at
simpler technical problems. But supercomputers are often
needed for complex problems where one small design
change may have a ripple effect that changes 50 other
inputs and everything needs to be calibrated as one, he
that takes everything into consideration at the same
time takes a hell of a lot of computing power,"
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are used across industries. They aren’t just for heavy
players in the auto and manufacturing businesses.
use them for designing a Pringles can so that chips can
soar into the air and back into the can. Or they’re
used to create a diaper that absorbs properly but also
has its many tabs in all the right places.
manufacturer Ping is using the technology to make golf
good technology for designing a space shuttle turns out
to be good for a golf company," Conway said.
many cases, though, the question of whether to use such
proprietary servers or cloud-based services isn’t an
Arthur, director of advanced computing at GE Research,
said the company uses supercomputers in many stages of
its design process to examine "overwhelmingly
complex" data and make sense of it. It also uses
you have a cloud plus this secret sauce of a
supercomputer behind it, you can now do things that are
not possible" for someone relying on Amazon or
Microsoft alone, he said.
many analysts and industry insiders expect most
businesses and government entities to increasingly rely
on the cloud for most tasks.
whole industry should be going to the cloud,"
Dillenberger, with IBM, said. "It’s more
efficient." In addition to selling and leasing its
mainframes, IBM rents their processing power in its own
Russinovich said the technical barriers and businesses’
wariness of the cloud are both eroding. "I think
all of these blockers will be addressed over time,"
companies have used supercomputers for decades. But as
costs for the technology come down and the amount of
data companies collect rises, Cray sees an opportunity
to make a splash across industries.
company sold supercomputers to businesses across five
industries in 2015, including financial services,
manufacturing and life sciences. Corporations may buy
the same type of computer as a $100 million model that
goes to a government agency, but the company’s model
may cost a few hundred thousand dollars. The trade-off
is less computing power.
said Chief Strategy Officer Barry Bolding, is moving
"away from being exclusively a provider to big
government." For the company, which employs 150
people in Washington and 1,270 worldwide, targeting
commercial buyers is something of a blast from the past.
company sold the first supercomputer to the auto
industry in 1979. But more recently, the majority of the
company’s sales targeted government clients.
itself is emerging from the bumpy road of corporate deal
making in the 1990s that saw the company change hands
twice in four years and a corporate cousin go bankrupt.
That ended in 2000 when the Cray Research division was
acquired by Seattle-based Tera Computing, and renamed
history since then has been kind of a low-hanging-fruit
thing," said IDC’s Conway, who worked at Cray in
the early 2000s. "The first order of business was
to get revenue coming in so they went after the
government and large universities and have done really
well in building that company back."
1972 in Chippewa Falls, Wis.
for: Developing supercomputers for government agencies
and higher education
1,270, including 150 in Washington,
sales: $616 million (12 months ended Sept. 30)
profit: $14.6 million (12 months ended Sept. 30)