Compaq Wins Supercomputer Contract, But Is It Enough?
Computer Corporation and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) in
Pittsburgh, PA announced that the National Science Foundation (NSF) in
Arlington, VA has selected them to build and manage the world's largest
supercomputer to offer scientists access to a wide range of non-military,
scientific applications. The contract, valued at an initial $36 million
for hardware, software and services, will be managed for NSF by PSC, with
first delivery of systems expected by November 2000.
on Compaq's AlphaServer SC architecture, the supercomputer will consist
of 682 quad-processor Compaq AlphaServer systems with a total of 2,728
processors that will deliver peak computing power of greater than six
trillion floating point operations per second (TeraFLOPS). The system
will run Compaq's Tru64 UNIX operating system with 2,728 gigabytes of
memory (1 gigabyte per CPU) and 50 terabytes of storage.
terms of a joint agreement between Compaq and PSC, Compaq will provide
the hardware, software, performance and benchmarking activities while
PSC will do the porting, tuning and development of efficient parallel
supercomputer system will allow NSF to establish a single, new terascale
computing system to enable U.S. researchers in all science and engineering
disciplines to gain access to leading-edge computing capabilities to look
at such things as the structure and dynamics of proteins useful in drug
design, storm-scale weather forecasting, and the modeling of earthquakes
and global climate change.
note: The Alpha chip and architecture was designed by Digital Equipment
Corporation, which was acquired by Compaq in 1998.
Winning a high-profile contract such as the Pittsburgh Supercomputing
Center is a nice trophy, and demonstrates the Alpha chip's power for high-end
applications. However, contracts for 2700-processor machines are not going
to get awarded every day, so Compaq must concentrate on its regular channels
to get the revenues needed.
announced its AlphaServer GS Series (code-named "Wildfire") in May (It
Takes More Than a Fast CPU to Rule the Web), with the stated goal
of reaching $1 Billion in sales for the year. Another goal was to make
big inroads into Internet infrastructure.
then, its sales have been, uh, less than stunning. Current reports indicate
that after the initial backlog of 200 systems, only 50 (fifty) additional
systems were sold in the quarter. Compared with Sun's E10000 (255 in their
first shipping quarter) and IBM's RS/6000 S80 (720 in their quarter),
these are hardly impressive figures. (Yes, we realize that backlog + new
orders = 250. We discount some of the backlog because Wildfire was over
a year late, resulting in more pent-up demand.)
these systems sell for an average of $2.5 Million (we think this unlikely),
the sales force will need to redouble their efforts in order to reach
$1 Billion. What mystifies us is the persistent lack of enterprise-focused
performance data from Compaq - we commented on this two months ago, and
have seen little change. Perhaps Alpha Marketing feels benchmarks are
unimportant to customers?
short term impact on Compaq is the potential for having a product not
recoup its development costs. Compaq has repeatedly stated that the Alpha
is an important part its long-term strategy, so success of the GS series
is important from a face-saving point of view. Since Compaq is not big
on charity, i.e., keeping a product which is not "pulling its weight",
the risk is that the product line will be cut back significantly at the
high end. Although volume (through low-end sales) is key to reducing Alpha
costs and thus overall cost, a high-end cutback may precipitate a domino
effect. We think this would be too bad, because we appreciate a number
of Alpha's strengths, but we understand market reality.
The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center win shows that Alpha can compete
at the very high end of the market. If you have a supercomputer-class
task you really need to have solved, such as advanced computational fluid
dynamics (CFD) or weather patterns or trying to determine if Alan Greenspan
will raise interest rates, the high-end Alpha systems are deserving of
your attention. In the supercomputing space, IBM is also a serious contender,
and should be investigated/reviewed by potential customers.
PSC win also demonstrates the scalability of the Alpha architecture. This
will help reassure customers who intend to buy smaller systems, but want
to plan for expansion.