With Cray buy, HPE rules but does not own the supercomputing market

In buying supercomputer vendor Cray, HPE has strengthened its high-performance-computing technology, but serious competitors remain.

The Cray XC30 'Piz Daint' system at the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre
Cray Inc.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise was already the leader in the high-performance computing (HPC) sector before its announced acquisition of supercomputer maker Cray earlier this month. Now it has a commanding lead, but there are still competitors to the giant.

The news that HPE would shell out $1.3 billion to buy the company came just as Cray had announced plans to build three of the biggest systems yet — all exascale, and all with the same deployment time of 2021.

Sales had been slowing for HPC systems, but our government, with its endless supply of money, came to the rescue, throwing hundreds of millions at Cray for systems to be built at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

And HPE sees a big revenue opportunity in HPC, a market that was $2 billion in 1990 and now nearly $30 billion, according to Steve Conway, senior vice president with Hyperion Research, which follows the HPC market. HPE thinks the HPC market will grow to $35 billion by 2021, and it hopes to earn a big chunk of that pie.

“They were solidly in the lead without Cray. They were already in a significant lead over the No. 2 company, Dell. This adds to their lead and gives them access to very high end of market, especially government supercomputers that sell for $300 million to $600 million each,” said Conway.

He’s not exaggerating. Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Energy announced a contract with Cray to build Frontier, an exascale supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, sometime in 2021, with a $600 million price tag. Frontier will be powered by AMD Epyc processors and Radeon GPUs, which must have them doing backflips at AMD.

With Cray, HPE is sitting on a lot of technology for the supercomputing and even the high-end, non-HPC market. It had the ProLiant business, the bulk of server sales (and proof the Compaq acquisition wasn’t such a bad idea), Integrity NonStop mission-critical servers, the SGI business it acquired in in 2016, plus a variety running everything from Arm to Xeon Scalable processors.

Conway thinks all of those technologies fit in different spaces, so he doubts HPE will try to consolidate any of it. All HPE has said so far is it will keep the supercomputer products it has now under the Cray business unit.

But the company is still getting something it didn’t have. “It takes a certain kind of technical experience [to do HPC right] and only a few companies able to play at that level. Before this deal, HPE was not one of them,” said Conway.

And in the process, HPE takes Cray away from its many competitors: IBM, Lenovo, Dell/EMC, Huawei (well, not so much now), Super Micro, NEC, Hitachi, Fujitsu, and Atos.

“[The acquisition] doesn’t fundamentally change things because there’s still enough competitors that buyers can have competitive bids. But it’s gotten to be a much bigger market,” said Conway.

Cray sells a lot to government, but Conway thinks there is a new opportunity in the ever-expanding AI race. “Because HPC is indispensable at the forefront of AI, there is a new area for expanding the market,” he said.

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