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There is Nothing Like a Cray
China may have the world's fastest computer now, but this Wisconsin-born company has always made the sexiest.

The recently dethroned Titan supercomputer

A Chinese supercomputer has outperformed the "Titan" supercomputer at the U.S. Department of Energy, which until an announcement today was widely considered to be the world's fastest computer. Developed by the Cray supercomputer company, which has roots in Chippewa Falls, Wis., Titan seized the top slot on the Top 500 list of the world's most powerful computers when it went online earlier this year. But not so fast, government eggheads. The Tianhe-2 engineered in China is roughly twice as powerful as Titan, with the capacity to perform 33,860 trillion calculations each second (33.86 petaflops). This is roughly three million times more than a typical desktop computer.

Tianhe-2 uses both Intel- and Chinese-designed hardware and appears equipped for both scientific research (as the Titan is) and national security use. Its software includes a specially-designed, high-security operating system for government applications, making the system built by the National University of Defense Technology well-suited for any number of as-yet-to-be-determined purposes. Its unveiling (and inclusion in the June edition of the Top 500 ranking) surprised many observers as previous reports had suggested the Titan-killer wouldn't go live until 2015.

Founded in Chippewa Falls, Wis. in 1972 under the name Cray Research, Cray built one of the world's first supercomputers, the Cray-1. Cozy Chippewa Falls remained at the bleeding edge of high-powered computing until 1989, when founder and mastermind Seymour Cray (a Chippewa Falls native) split the company in two and moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., where he oversaw development of the Cray-3. Cray himself remained an icon of computing until his death in a car accident in 1996 at the age of 71, though his name would live on as four letters stamped onto some of the world's fastest hardware.


The company has always had a knack for design, and perhaps its earliest models are the most arresting. The Cray-1's C-shape helped different segments of the computer to communicate with each other more quickly, while lending the tower a Mister Spock vibe.

Cray (right) and the Cray-1 (left)

The Cray-1 even had seats for taking a break from your research on fluid dynamics.

Later models continued to show that cutting-edge computers could also be devilishly sexy.

Cray-2 (1985)

Cray YMP-8E (1990)

Cray J90 (1994)

Cray T90 (1995)

Mr. Cray, as part of the Control Data Corp., also designed the CDC 6600, a mainframe computer built in 1964. As the first system to break the megaflop barrier, it often gets credit for being the world's first supercomputer.

Cray's big breakthrough was linking multiple processors together to work in unison. Until then, mainframes had relied on a single CPU burdened with performing all of the system's calculations.

(Titan image by U.S. Department of Energy)

(Cray images from the Computer History Museum)

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