Supercomputing: 40 Years of Exponential Growth

January 22, 2017 - 5:52pm

The National Center for Atmospheric Research’s (NCAR) Mesa Laboratory received the Cray-1 supercomputer 40 years ago in July 1977, which weighed a whooping 10,500 lbs. (4.76 metric tons). It had to be lowered into the NCAR computer room in the basement of the Mesa Lab with the help of a tow truck, crane, and a small army of individuals. It was not the first computer built by Seymour Cray, commonly called the father of the supercomputer, but it was the first machine NCAR would own that bared his name.

Seymour Cray had designed two of NCAR’s first computers, the Control Data 6600 and 7600, before launching his own firm. NCAR became Cray Research’s first official customer in July 1977, paying $8.86 million ($7.9 million plus $1 million for the disks). With the help of newly designed integrated silicon chips, the Cray-1 boasted more memory (one megabyte) and more speed (80 million computations per second) than any other computer in the world.

The Cray’s architecture reflected its designer’s skill at bridging technical hurdles with revolutionary ideas. In order to increase the speed of this system, the Cray-1 had a unique shape (C-shape no less), which enabled integrated circuits to be closer together. No wire in the system was more than four feet long. To handle the intense heat generated by the computer, Cray developed an innovative refrigeration system using Freon. And scientists at NCAR and at more than 40 universities put the Cray-1 to work via a remote job-entry system revolutionary for its day. Output from the Cray’s number crunching was stored on NCAR’s new videotape-based Ampex data storage system, which arrived shortly before the Cray-1. It held hundreds of disk tapes each holding 5 gigabytes of data, or 5 billion bytes. And, a seating area was built into the design, which covered the freon cooling system below. 

Subsequent NCAR supercomputers have long eclipsed the Cray-1 with its 12.5-nanosecond clock, 64 vector registers, and 1 million 64-bit words of high-speed memory. Back in the late 70s, Cray Research expected to sell perhaps a dozen of the machines, but over eighty Cray-1s were sold.  The machine made Cray a celebrity and the company a success. But today, its speed of 80 megaflops, or 80 million floating point operations per second, stands in stark contrast to those reached by Cheyenne, NCAR’s newest supercomputer reaching speeds of 5.332 petaflops – approximately 67 million times faster than the Cray-1. Yes, you heard that correctly!   

NCAR would go on to purchase additional Cray machines over time. But in the early 1990s, with the rising power of cheap microprocessor chips and massively parallel supercomputers available at far lower costs than Cray machines, both he and the supercomputing industry he helped to pioneer, went into a tail spin. Even NCAR made the transition to massively parallel supercomputers, which we use still to this day. But the era of vector computers is fondly remembered by many current and former NCAR staff who had the great honor of working with the world's first supercomputer and for some, this remarkable man, legend, and inventor as well. 


Editor's Note

You can see Cheyenne in person by visiting the NCAR Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne, Wyoming Monday through Saturday. Public tours are available.

The Cray-1 can be seen onsite at the NCAR Mesa Laboratory Visitor Center each day of the week, with tours at noon on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. 

About the author

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Teri Eastburn

Teri Eastburn has worked in education at UCAR for over 15 years as the manager for the UCAR Center for Science Education's School and Public Programs, it's Digital Learning Technology group, and most recently as the Lead for UCARConnect. For over 10 years, she enjoyed sharing the science and history of UCAR and NCAR with members of the public both young and old on tours and field trips, including the history of it's computing capabilities and its exponential growth since its founding in 1960 with 14 member universities, now over 110.