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Microsoft Snags Leading Supercomputer Scientist

Supercomputer stalwart Cray Inc. disclosed this week that Chief Scientist Burton Smith, a specialist in large-scale, parallel computing architectures, is heading to Microsoft. He has also resigned his role as a director on the firm's board of directors.

Smith co-founded Seattle-based Tera Computer, which purchased Cray Research in 2000 to form Seattle-based Cray Inc.

The announcement of Smith's move comes only two weeks after Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates told the keynote audience at Supercomputing 2005 of the company's intent to become more seriously involved in the world of high-performance computing (HPC). (See, “Gates: Microsoft Ships Beta 2 of HPC Cluster Version of Windows,” Nov. 16, 2005.)

Microsoft also announced at that time it is shipping the second beta test version of its upcoming high-performance computing (HPC) edition of Windows. Microsoft had originally hoped to ship Windows Computer Cluster Server 2003 by the end of the year, but it's currently targeted for release in the first half of 2006. When it does ship, the software will only run on systems that support Intel's and AMD's 64-bit memory addressing technologies.

Smith's role at Microsoft has not been disclosed. However, Gates' speech may give some hints as to Microsoft's future plans -- commodity computing based on microprocessors applied to problems that are best (and most economically) solved with a parallel computing architecture. That appears to play well with Smith's expertise.

"We see as a key trend here...that we'll have supercomputers of all sizes, including one that will cost less than $10,000 and be able to sit at your desk or in your department," Gates said in his Supercomputing 2005 speech. Users will be able to employ such "personal supercomputers" for preliminary results or relatively simple problems. Architectural continuity between the personal or workgroup supercomputers and a much larger supercomputing cluster at, for instance, company headquarters could allow the same computation to be run with a finer level of detail. "We need an approach here that scales from the smallest supercomputer that will be inexpensive up to the very largest," Gates said.

Of course, the Cray of today is not the Cray that helped found supercomputing in the 1970s and 1980s -- with the Cray 1, a supercomputer in what looked a little like a C-shaped black leather loveseat that ran at the then-blindingly fast 160 million floating-point operations per second (160 megaflops) in 8 Mbytes of main memory. In comparison, the current top 500 list of fastest supercomputers recently saw speeds of nearly 300 teraflops (trillion floating-point operations per second).

Seymour Cray left the company in 1980 and died in 1996. Smith served as chairman of Tera Computer from 1988 to 1999 and also designed Cray's MTA-2 supercomputing architecture.

In 2003, he was awarded the Seymour Cray Computing Engineering Award from the IEEE Computer Society and was elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering, according to a biography published on Cray's Web site.

As in other areas of computing, Cray and other HPC companies have been facing increasing competition from commodity, microprocessor-based supercomputer applications. In fact, Cray Inc. lost $10.3 million on revenues of $44.7 million in the company's third quarter ending Sept. 30. But that is a large improvement over the same quarter last year when the company lost $111 million. Perhaps not surprisingly, earlier this month, Cray Inc. announced it will base a new generation of supercomputers on AMD's Operton processors.

"We are pleased to confirm that Burton J. Smith will be joining Microsoft as a technical fellow in December. Mr. Smith's background is highly regarded in the industry and we look forward to the perspective he will bring to the company,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in an e-mail.

Smith's last day at Cray will be Dec. 7.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct and clarify Smith's work history with Tera Computer and Cray Research.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.

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