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Seymour Cray 1925-1996

Country : Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin
Profession : Inventor
Date of birth : 1925-09-28
Date of death : 1996-10-05
Cause of Death : Automobile Accident

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Seymour Roger Cray (September 28, 1925October 5, 1996) was a U.S. electrical engineer and supercomputer architect who designed a series of computers that were the fastest in the world for decades, and founded the company Cray Research which would build many of these machines. Called "the father of supercomputing," Cray has been credited with creating the supercomputer industry through his efforts.

Early life

Cray was born in 1925 in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin to Seymour R. and Lillian Cray. His father was a civil engineer who fostered Cray's interest in science and engineering. As early as the age of ten he was able to build a device out of Erector Set components that converted punched paper tape into Morse code signals. The basement of the family home was given over to Cray as a "lab".

Cray graduated from Chippewa Falls High School in 1943 before being drafted for World War II as a radio operator. He saw action in Europe, and then moved to the Pacific theatre where he worked on breaking Japanese codes. On his return to the United States he received a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1950. He also was awarded a M.Sc. in applied mathematics in 1951.

Control Data Corporation

In 1950, Cray joined Engineering Research Associates (ERA) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. ERA had formed out of a former United States Navy lab that had built codebreaking machines, a tradition ERA carried on when such work was available. ERA was introduced to computer technology during one such effort, but in other times had worked on a wide variety of basic engineering as well.

Cray quickly came to be regarded as an expert on digital computer technology, especially following his design work on the ERA 1103, the first commercially successful scientific computer. He remained at ERA when it was bought by Remington Rand and then Sperry Corporation in the early 1950s. At the newly formed Sperry-Rand, ERA became the "scientific computing" arm of their UNIVAC division.

But when the scientific computing division was phased out in 1957, a number of employees left to form Control Data Corporation (CDC). Cray wanted to follow immediately, but CDC's CEO, William Norris, refused as Cray was in the midst of completing a project for the Navy, with whom Norris was interested in maintaining a good relationship. The project, the Naval Tactical Data System, was completed early the next year, at which point Cray left for CDC as well. By 1960 he had completed the design of the CDC 1604, an improved low-cost ERA 1103 that had impressive performance for its price range.

Even as the CDC 1604 was starting to ship to customers in 1960, Cray had already moved on to designing its "replacement", the CDC 6600. Although in terms of hardware the 6600 was not on the leading edge, Cray invested considerable effort into the design of the machine in an attempt to enable it to run as fast as possible. Unlike most high-end projects, Cray realized that there was considerably more to performance than simple processor speed, that I/O bandwidth had to be maximized as well in order to avoid "starving" the processor of data to crunch. As he later noted, Anyone can build a fast CPU. The trick is to build a fast system.

The 6600 was the first commercial supercomputer, outperforming everything then available by a wide margin. While expensive, for those that needed the absolutely fastest computer available there was nothing else on the market that could compete. When other companies (namely IBM) attempted to create machines with similar performance, he increased the challenge by releasing the 5-fold faster CDC 7600.

The Chippewa Lab

During this period Cray had become increasingly annoyed at what he saw as interference from CDC management. Cray always demanded an absolutely quiet work environment with a minimum of management overhead, but as the company grew he found himself constantly interrupted by middle managers who (according to Cray) did little but gawk and use him as a sales tool by introducing him to prospective customers.

Cray decided that in order to continue development he would have to move from St. Paul, far enough that it would be too long a drive for a "quick visit" and long distance telephone charges would be just enough to deter most calls, yet close enough that real visits or board meetings could be attended without too much difficulty. After some debate, Norris backed him and set up a new lab on land Cray owned in his hometown of Chippewa Falls. Some of the reason for the move may also have to do with Cray's worries about an impending nuclear war, which he felt made Minneapolis a serious safety concern. His house, built a few hundred yards from the new CDC lab, included a huge bomb shelter.

The new Chippewa Lab was set up in the middle of the 7600 project, although it does not seem to have delayed the project. After the 7600 shipped, he started development of its replacement, the CDC 8600. It was this project that finally ended his run of successes at CDC in 1972.

Although the 6600 and 7600 had been huge successes in the end, both projects had almost bankrupted the company while they were being designed. The 8600 was running into similar difficulties and Cray eventually decided that the only solution was to start over fresh. This time Norris wasn't willing to take the risk, and another project within the company, the CDC STAR-100 seemed to be progressing more smoothly. Norris said he was willing to keep the project alive at a low level until the STAR was delivered, at which point full funding could be put into the 8600. Cray was unwilling to work under these conditions and left the company.

Cray Research

The split was fairly amicable, and when he started Cray Research in a new lab on the same Chippewa property a year later, Norris invested $300,000 in start-up money. Like CDC's organization, Cray R&D was based in Chippewa Falls and business headquarters were in Minneapolis. Unlike CDC, Cray's manufacturing was also in Chippewa Falls.

At first there was some question as to what exactly the new company should do. It did not seem that there would be any way for them to afford to develop a new computer, given that the now-large CDC had been unable to support more than one. But when the President in charge of financing traveled to Wall Street to look for seed capital, he was surprised to find that Cray's reputation was very well known. Far from struggling for some role to play in the market, the financial world was more than willing to provide Cray with all the money they would need to develop a new machine.

After several years of development their first product was released in 1976 as the Cray-1. As with earlier Cray designs, the Cray-1 made sure that the entire computer was fast, as opposed to just the processor. When it was released it easily beat almost every machine in terms of speed, including the STAR-100 that had beaten the 8600 for funding. The only machine able to perform on the same sort of level was the ILLIAC IV, a specialized one-off machine that rarely operated near its maximum performance except on very specific tasks. In general, the Cray-1 beat anything on the market by a wide margin.

Serial number 001 was "lent" to Los Alamos in 1976, and that summer the first full system was sold to the National Center for Atmospheric Research for $8.8 million. The company's early estimates had suggested that they might sell a dozen such machines, based on sales of similar machines from the CDC era, so the price was set accordingly. But in the end well over 100 Cray-1s were sold, and the company was a huge success financially.

When asked what kind of CAD tools he used for the Cray-1, Cray said that he liked #3 pencils with quadrille pads. Cray recommended using the backs of the pages so that the lines were not so dominant. When he was told that Apple Computer had just bought a Cray to help design the next Apple Macintosh, Cray commented that he had just bought a Macintosh to design the next Cray.

Follow-up success was not so easy. While he worked on the Cray-2, other teams delivered the four-processor Cray X-MP, which was another huge success. When the Cray-2 was finally released after six years of development it was only marginally faster than the X-MP, largely due to very fast memory, and thus sold in much smaller numbers.

As the Cray-3 project started he found himself once again being "bothered" too much with day-to-day tasks. In order to concentrate on design, Cray left the CEO position of Cray Research in 1980 to become an independent contractor, working from a new lab in Colorado Springs, Colorado, near the site of NCAR and the earlier attempted Cray Laboratories.

In 1989 Cray was faced with a repeat of history when the Cray-3 started to run into difficulties. An upgrade of the X-MP using high-speed memory from the Cray-2 was under development and seemed to be making real progress, and once again management was faced with two projects and limited budgets. They eventually decided to take the safer route, releasing the new design as the Cray Y-MP.

Cray Computer Corporation

Cray decided to spin off the Colorado Springs lab to form Cray Computer Corporation, taking the Cray-3 project with them.

The 500 MHz Cray-3 proved to be Cray's second major failure. In order to provide the tenfold increase in performance that he always demanded of his newest machines, Cray decided that the machine would have to be built using gallium arsenide semiconductors. In the past Cray had always avoided using anything even near the state of the art, preferring to use well-known solutions and designing a fast machine based on them. But in this case Cray was developing every part of the machine, even the chips inside it.

Nevertheless the team was able to get the machine working and installed their first example at NCAR. The machine was still essentially a prototype, and the company was using the installation to debug the design. By this time a number of massively parallel machines were coming into the market at price/performance points the Cray-3 could not touch. Cray responded through "brute force", starting design of the Cray-4 which would run at 1 GHz and outpower these machines, regardless of price.

In 1995 there had been no further sales of the Cray-3, and the ending of the cold war made it unlikely anyone would buy enough Cray-4's to offer a return on the development funds. The company ran out of money and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy March 24, 1995.

SRC Computers

Cray had always resisted the massively parallel solution to high-speed computing, offering a variety of reasons that it would never work as well as one very fast processor. He famously quipped "If you were plowing a field, which would you rather use: Two strong oxen or 1024 chickens?" By the mid-1990s this argument was becoming increasingly difficult to justify, and modern compiler technology made developing programs on such machines not much more difficult than their simpler counterparts.

Cray set up a new company, SRC Computers, and started the design of his own massively parallel machine. The new design concentrated on communications and memory performance, the bottleneck that hampered many parallel designs. Design had just started when Cray suddenly died as a result of a car accident. SRC Computers carried on development and now specializes in reconfigurable computing.

Technical Approaches

Cray frequently cited two important aspects to his design philosophy: remove heat, and ensure that all signals that are supposed to arrive somewhere at the same time do indeed arrive at the same time.

His computers were equipped with built-in cooling systems, extending ultimately to coolant channels cast into the mainframes and thermally coupled to metal plates within the circuit boards, and to systems immersed in coolants. In a story he told on himself, he realized early in his career that he should interlock the computers with the cooling systems so that the computers would not operate unless the cooling systems were operational. But it did not originally occur to him to interlock in the other direction until a customer reported finding their computer turned off and encased in ice after a very localized power outage had hit the computer over the night but spared the cooling system.

Cray addressed the problem of skew by ensuring that every signal path in his later computers was the same electrical length, so that values that were to be acted upon at a particular time were indeed all valid values. When required, he would run the traces back and forth on the circuit boards till the desired length was achieved, and he even employed Maxwell's equations in design of the boards to ensure that any radio frequency effects which altered the signal velocity and hence the electrical path length were accounted for. He was a digital person who could think analog when required.

Cray was also proud of the cushions that surrounded his cylindrically shaped computers, atop the power supplies. He wanted to make life comfortable for the maintenance technicians.

Personal life

Beyond the design of computers Cray led a "streamlined life". He avoided publicity and there are a number of unusual tales about his life away from work. He enjoyed skiing, wind surfing, tennis and other sports. Another favorite pastime was digging a tunnel under his home; he once attributed the secret of his success to elves. "While I'm digging in the tunnel, the elves will often come to me with solutions to my problem." German avant-garde industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten cite Cray and his tunnel as partial inspiration for their song Schacht von Babel.

Cray died October 5, 1996 (age 71) of head and neck injuries suffered in a traffic collision on September 22, 1996. Cray underwent emergency surgery and had been hospitalized since the accident 2 weeks earlier. Daniel Rarick, 33, had tried to pass Cray on Interstate 25 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, struck another car, which then struck Cray's Jeep Cherokee, causing it to roll 3 times. Rarick received a citation for careless driving causing serious bodily injury. He was unhurt in the accident. The entrance/exit at Academy Blvd and I-25 was later reconfigured to be less dangerous.

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