Cray stays relevant by reinventing itself

Seattle firm targets Big Data applications and a new generation of supercomputer users.
Skip Ferderber |   August 2013   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
CEO Peter Ungaro with a display of compute modules from Cray’s earliest supercomputers.

When the federal government wanted to develop a system to root out fraud, it turned to the Urika, a platform skilled at uncovering relationships among disparate data even experts might not see. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which makes a half-trillion dollars a year in health care payments, wanted to find a way to identify and go after more than $60 billion annually in fraudulent claims.

The Urika graph appliance comes from a subsidiary of Seattle-based Cray Inc. and is part of a broader effort by Cray to reinvent itself as it seeks to respond to explosive growth in the new market widely referred to as “Big Data.”

Big Data, which seeks to pull meaningful intelligence on consumers, trends and markets from massive amounts of information, is all the buzz these days. But for Cray, it’s old hat. For decades, the company has been supplying powerful computers and ultra-sophisticated software to address intensive computing needs of a broad range of sectors that have long handled huge amounts of data, from medical research, weather forecasting and oil exploration to aircraft modeling and government analysis.

With the advent of the internet, e-commerce and cloud computing, hundreds of companies now have access to data they can mine for competitive advantage. IDC, the market research firm, valued the supercomputer market, including hardware, software, storage and services, at $21.2 billion last year. The hardware portion is worth $11.1 billion and grew by 29 percent in the same period. Cray has a 19 percent share of the $3.76 billion market for supercomputers that cost $3 million and up. IBM has a 45 percent share of that market.

IBM could easily eat Cray for lunch— its market cap is more than 20 times Cray’s $816 million. So how does Cray survive? “The answer is focus,” says Cray CEO Peter Ungaro.

“The way companies stay ahead of the game is by offering very specific products and at Cray, our whole focus is on supercomputing.”

Cray made its name and fortune by being the go-to supercomputer company for government agencies and research institutions. But increasingly, crunching large amounts of data has shifted from computers that used a handful of superfast processors to those that enlist hundreds or thousands of processors to sift through information. Cray is going after those new markets by offering customers a large lineup of systems at a broad range of price points. It is also responding to customer demand for

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