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April 19, 2012

Cray Brings In New CTO to Drive Supercomputing, Big Data Integration

Michael Feldman

Cray has tapped former board member Bill Blake to become the company’s new chief technology officer. Blake, who joined Cray’s board in 2006, is an industry veteran, with exec stints at Microsoft (GM, Parallel Computing Platforms), Interactive Supercomputing (CEO), Netezza (SVP, Product Development), and, Compaq Computer (VP, High Performance Technical Computing). That range of experience points to his new role, which will be focused on melding Cray’s supercomputing technology with its new ventures in big data and storage.

Cray has gone without a CTO for more than 8 months now, since former tech chief Steve Scott departed last August. Scott landed at NVIDIA shortly thereafter to become the technical lead for NVIDIA’s Tesla business. Meanwhile, Cray let its CTO position remain vacant during a period in which they launched a big data division, YarcData, and offered up their first Lustre storage appliance. In less than half a year, Cray has expanded their product portfolio in such a way that, at least on paper, gives them access to a much broader market.

Cray’s focus now is to drive all their underlying technologies forward under the umbrella of its “Adaptive Supercomputing vision. The ultimate goal is to glue the pieces together in a way that offers supercomputing-driven simulations, big data analytics, and storage as an integrated whole. Blake appears to be an excellent choice to fulfill that strategy since his background at Netezza (big data and storage appliances), Interactive Supercomputing (HPC software tools), Microsoft (applications), and Compaq (technical computing, software stack, and OS) encapsulate all the technologies that will be required to make that happen.

HPCwire spoke with Blake, as well as Cray CEO Peter Ungaro, about how the new CTO role will be used to shape the company’s strategy. Much of that conversation revolved around their new big data focus and how it’s going to fit into Cray’s supercomputing business. Even though the company’s YarcData division has been up and running for less than three months, they are clearly focused on leveraging that technology to serve both their traditional science and research customers and to capture new ones in the commercial realm.

Ungaro believes big data is the bridge technology that will move HPC into mainstream computing. “It’s hard to tell what a traditional commercial application looks like versus a traditional scientific application in this new world of big data,” Ungaro told HPCwire. And from his point of view, it’s the fusion of these technologies that is the real opportunity for Cray and will allow them to pursue opportunities outside of their supercomputing niche.

Until relatively recently, traditional business intelligence (BI) has been focused on fast reporting, based on transactional processing, with little if any algorithmic bent to it. In that sense, classic BI is retrospective. But if you add modeling and simulation into the equation, you can ask “what if” type questions. That gets you into the realm of predictive analytics, which represents the leading edge of BI today.

Ungaro is not alone in thinking that the best way to do that is to integrate big data with HPC. That will take some doing though. Even at Cray, supercomputers and big data appliances are siloed environments. If you need to hook up HPC servers, analytics servers, and storage today, you can do so, but typically only in a loosely connected way. Cray wants to make that connection more intimate so that users can move from their simulation applications to analytics applications in a much more seamless manner.

Having seen both the HPC and big data sides of the equation, Blake knows that the distributed memory clusters and storage farms typical of supercomputing environments and the more cozy arrangement of disks and servers in data appliances are miles apart architecturally (to say nothing of the disparate software stacks). The latter is purpose-built for data streaming, fast searching and querying, while the former is optimized for MPI-based numeric modeling.

To blend those two platforms into a unified whole where both types of applications play nice with each other is obviously more than a weekend project. “It’s not a problem solved by just adding GPUs or adding a few nodes on the cluster,” explains Blake. Rather, he says, it will take a concerted effort to re-architect the system, including much of the software stack — the compiler, runtime, threading model, and message passing components, to name a few. Blake’s role will be steer the supercomputer, big data, and storage R&D efforts toward that unified goal, a process he expects will take years.

In the short-term though, he’ll be flying to Stuttgart, Germany to attend the Cray User Group meeting there later this month. Before returning home, he’ll stop at Sandia National Labs to check in with customers. In aggregate, he expects he’ll be spending quite a bit of time on the road, maybe the majority of it, talking to customers and prospects, gathering requirements and listening to feedback.

While all that travel may not seem ideal for someone used to the comforts of the corner office, Blake seems genuinely happy to take on his new role. With its lofty goals and emphasis on envelop-pushing, Cray is definitely his kind of organization. “A company that’s just interested in pushing products into a channel or optimizing cost or distribution is absolutely not interesting to me,” he explains.

Blake says if he was born 300 years ago, he would have wanted to work in Stradivarius’ workshop designing violins for the virtuosos of that age. “In the 21th century,” he says, “it’s the workshop that Seymour built, called Cray.”

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