Cray has been the most candid of the three about the Cascade system it proposed to Darpa planners. Cascade is essentially a cluster-in-a-box that will deliver a mix of scalar, FPGA and hybrid vector/massively multi-threaded processor boards in a single system.
The system is essentially a hybrid design based on a future version of Cray's XT3 "Red Storm" system which uses AMD Opteron CPUs. It also incorporates technologies from three other systems Cray sells today: the X1E vector processor, the MTA multithreaded system and the XD1 system that uses FPGA accelerators.
Cascade will use Opteron/Linux boards to handle overall systems services and act as applications processors. A new board will be based on a hybrid ASIC that can shift on-the-fly between modes for vector processing and massively multithreading. In addition, Cray anticipates designing an FPGA accelerator board for Cascade based on its XD1 system.
The toughest innovation for Cascade is in developing compiler software that can handle a mix of applications calling for scalar, vector or massively multithreaded applications with minimal guidance from the programmer.
According to a Darpa statement, Cascade software includes novel debugging and performance tuning tools, the Chapel high productivity language, and an operating system designed to scale reliably and efficiently to hundreds of thousands of processors.
Cray badly needed to win the HPCS program. The company had a net loss of more than $200 million in 2004, and a $55 million loss in the first nine months of its 2005 due to lower than expected revenues and margins. Although Cray made a modest profit of $63 million in 2003, more than two-thirds of it came from a tax benefit, and 2002 saw profits of just $5 million.
At the end of June 2005, Cray laid off ten percent of its employees, about 90 people. Many employees had been under a salary-reduction program until late last year.
"We are very serious about it. So the HPCS Phase 3 funding is a big deal for our company. It allows us to think out-of-the-box about systems a few years ahead of what we are used to," said Steve Scott, chief technology officer for Cray in an interview in September.