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January 17, 2014

Hobbyists Recreate Lost Cray Supercomputer

Tiffany Trader
Seymour Cray and Cray-1 supercomputer

Nearly four decades ago, the pioneering computer architect Seymour Cray created one of the most successful and iconic supercomputers ever made, the Cray-1. This 5.5-ton C-shaped tower was a popular sight in laboratories since its release in 1976 throughout the 1980s, but eventually advances in supercomputing gave way to more powerful number crunchers.

While all of these historic Crays have long since been retired, hobbyists Chris Fenton and Andras Tantos are determined to preserve this slice of computing history. The duo are endeavoring to reconstruct a working model of the renowned Cray-1 supercomputer at desktop scale, as Gigaom’s Signe Brewster reports.

In 2010, Chris Fenton, a New York City-based electrical engineer who works with modern-day supercomputers, decided to replicate the physical form of the Cray-1 at one-tenth its original size. Because the system’s hardware was well-documented online, the project proceeded smoothly. Fenton constructed the tower using a CNC machine and Gorilla Glue and built the bench out of wood. To perfect the look, he painted the tower and upholstered the bench in pleather. The final model is a one-tenth replica of the original Cray-1 supercomputer.

Cray-1 model on counter

Cray-1 model, courtesy of http://www.chrisfenton.com/

Next came the interesting part – making the model operational. It was easy enough finding a board option capable of emulating the original Cray computational architecture. A $225 Spartan 3E-1600 board was small enough to fit inside the drawer that pulls out of the bench. Compared to the original Cray-1 price tag of between $5 and 8 million, $225 was a steal.

To finish the project, Fenton needed software. This was the first real stumbling block. The code for the original operating system was not to be found online. Seeking analog copies, Fenton tried the Computer History Museum and even filed FOIA requests with “scary government agencies,” all to no avail.

A lead eventually surfaced from a former Cray employee, who contributed a disk pack containing the last ever version of the Cray OS, written for the successor to the Cray-1: the Cray X-MP. At this point, Tantos, a Microsoft electrical engineer, who had been conducting his own hunt for the Cray OS, took over the recovery project. It was an arduous year-long endeavor that included reverse engineering the OS from the image, but the Cray OS now works, save for a few remaining bugs.

Fenton is now working to upgrade his desktop system to be compatible with the Cray X-MP OS. The team is also looking for a compiler, so they can write their own applications and run them on the Cray.

“In some ways it’s sad, but in other ways it’s fascinating,” Tantos told Gigaom. “Seeing how extremely hard it is to come by software for these early computers, it’s even more important that we preserve what is available.”

“The Cray-1 is one of those iconic machines that just makes you say ‘Now that’s a supercomputer!’” Fenton wrote on his blog in 2010. “Sure, your iPhone is 10X faster, and it’s completely useless to own one, but admit it … you really want one, don’t you?”

If you have information that could benefit the project, you can contact the duo here.