That's not a computer. THIS is a computer.
August 29, 2009 2:44 AM   Subscribe

Where can I find a used Cray supercomputer for sale? How much might I have to spend to acquire one?

Despite the fact that my dual-core CPU + GPU can run circles around most older Crays for many tasks, the name itself has an allure I just can't shake.

So I want one. I probably won't buy it next week. But I want one badly.

Where can I get a Cray? I struck out on eBay (unless I want to buy it in parts over the next five years). What sort of prices would I be looking at? If you don't know exact prices, can you guess at the order of magnitude?

For infrastructural reasons, I'm specifically interested in the air-cooled CMOS models (XMS, EL, J90, and SV1). But, frankly, a liquid-cooled design would be that much cooler (heh). I want something that I can get running and program. So I'd also need appropriate UNICOS software and a compiler, in addition to a functional computer.
posted by Netzapper to Technology (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

There are two reasons you don't find a booming secondary market in Crays.

1) They aren't exactly mass produced, so there just aren't all that many lying around.

2) They're expensive. When the University of Pittsburgh auctioned off it's C90 in 2000, bidding hit at least $45k. For a machine that originally cost $10 million, that's a pretty good discount, but that article estimates the upkeep at $50-100k annually. Cray's new "economy" mainframe line starts at $500k, and their "personal supercomputer," the CX1, starts at $10k. For the rest of their current models, they don't even list a price.

Like with most other catalogs where prices aren't listed, if you have to ask, you can't afford it. Even used. Also, if you need to ask where to get one, you can't afford it.

So yeah, you aren't going to be able to find these things just lying around. They're the kind of things that major institutions buy in single-digit orders, then amortize the cost over decades. They're the kind of things you use until they stops working, at which point you fix them, because they're too expensive to throw out.

Oh, and until quite recently, these were the sorts of things you needed a dedicated room to house properly.

In short: it's a cool idea, but unless you've got an extra few hundred large that you haven't told us about, this ain't gonna happen.
posted by valkyryn at 4:17 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh. Well, that's entirely too expensive. I was hoping, like, a few grand tops (not counting upkeep and power).

What about other supercomputers?

I don't care about performance, per se (I don't want a cluster, for instance). But something that, during the late 80's to mid 90's, would have been definitely called a supercomputer.

Thinking Machines, maybe?
posted by Netzapper at 4:31 AM on August 29, 2009

I used to have a personal AS/400 B50 48 bit CISC machine, that I got for free, for hauling it off, when the company I worked for replaced it with a 64 bit RISC machine in 2004. It was circa 1992, and used 208VAC mains power. Mine was in 5 rack cabinets, with an EMC high availability disk sub-system, too, so it looked like a bigger B60 system, to the untrained eye. I got all the manuals, license materials, and installation tapes. I even got a transfer letter from the company who I took it from, and registered with IBM as the new owner, for eligibility for software support. I put an air-conditioner in my garage, and hooked it up to the dryer's power connection.

So I understand your lust for your own "big iron."

It was cool, the first few times I fired it up, and I knew that old girl from years of working with her commercially. But keeping the garage warm enough in winter, and cool enough in summer, in Atlanta, to keep her enviornmental conditions sane got expensive, fast. And IBM was determined to end support for her by 2006, although, because of the large installed base and huge reseller network, this wasn't an immediately fatal concern, insofar as spare part availability was concerned.

What really made me finally, tearfully, decide to send her away to the recycler/reseller was the 170 - a little 64 bit PowerPC based RISC machine introduced by IBM, that started with the same processing capability as my B50, and could go up to 4x that capability, in a box that fit under a desk.

What I'm saying to you is that you won't be able to buy a complete liquid cooled Cray in working condition, and get it running yourself. The tech is too old, too fragile, too complicated, and without Cray engineering support, you'll never have the documentation or know how to get it working. Even getting something like an air-cooled X1 or XD1 circa 2004 is going to be challenging, because of the relative paucity (like, there are none) of Cray resellers. Very few machines have been built and delivered in the years since 2004, compared to IBM mainframe and supercomputer sales, and the rapid obsolescence of machines in that class means there just isn't the revenue stream for Cray to keep up support on the old iron.

Never was. Never will be. Cray's business model never included a used system support channel. When the old boxes are decommissioned, they fall into the scrap/recycle channels pretty fast, simply because no one wants to go to the trouble of trying to find second tier customers for them (export certification on supercomputers being a tough enough thing to arrange that it is only done for customers with money and presence, and that generally means new iron), and no one wants to warehouse them long. IBM and HP mid-range and mainframe systems have a much longer support "tail," because of an active reseller market, and a much larger installed base that has a constant demand for used systems.

If you really want your own Cray, do the smart thing, and plunk down $15,000 on a CX1. You'll have the advantage of modern design, documentation, and Cray support, initially, and it's an affordable, sensible one man project. Add some blades when you get the money, or grow tired of seeing your benchmarks peg.

It still says "Cray" on the front.
posted by paulsc at 5:13 AM on August 29, 2009 [11 favorites]

The power draw of any mainframe will be rather more than you'd want to spend. You'd likely need a dedicated facility with industrial electrical service.

I worked at a publishing house that had then recently scrapped its IBM mainframe. It was by no means a supercomputer. Replacing it with a single IBM server saved about $30,000/year in power costs, with a considerable improvement in utility. They kept the massive old UPS, which, when tested with the new server, didn't even register a load above its own self-discharge. With the old mainframe, you had about 90 minutes of frantic dumping and system shutdown before the UPS pegged out.
posted by scruss at 5:33 AM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Remember that you'll need serious amounts of power and a "float on the line" battery system to avoid even the slightest variation in voltage.

And serious cooling, probably with a liquid nitrogen bath to run the CPU in.

And, oh yes, you'll have to write your own operating system and application programs.
posted by KRS at 5:46 AM on August 29, 2009

A lot of old SGI gear is available on the secondary market. They didn't make real supercomputers, but they did make some pretty awesome workstations and servers, some of which were getting close. And they came in shiny crazy-shaped cases. And they later merged with Cray (now un-merged), so it's practically the same thing.
posted by miyabo at 6:07 AM on August 29, 2009

A Cray is a highly technical device. Its not like your Dell that you take out of the box and then surf over to facebook or something.

Its made up of a TON of parts that the user(company) orders and sets up. Go to eBay and check out the auctions for all sorts of parts. Get all those parts...and bam, you will have a vintage cray computer.
posted by hal_c_on at 6:46 AM on August 29, 2009

Personally I'd want a "Thinking Machines" just for the cabinet/"blinken lights".

Next I would (horrors) gut it and replace it with a cluster of mini (nano)-ITX boards running some form of Linux.

posted by jkaczor at 8:34 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

One other point I'll make about old supercomputers and mainframes: those beasts often require installation on an engineered raised floor. For many of those vintage systems, all the interconnect wiring, and most of the cooling airflow (or refrigerated water, if liquid cooled) must be supplied from underneath the machine, via the raised floor system. There's no provision for the systems to even safely sit on a normal floor, even unconnected, as their internal wiring harness connectors and cooling plumbing will be longer than their chassis, and therefore subject to damage/contamination if sitting on a normal floor.

Some systems with positive pressure air plenum cabinets will shutdown if a minimum pressure differential can't be maintained between the environment and the plenum. This is sometimes called the floor sensor, but it exists to keep particulate matter from below the raised floor from entering media access points like tape drives, Winchester disks, and CD bays, so that the machines internal parts don't become hopeless contaminated in case a floor panel becomes dislodged while the machine is in operation.

You really, really need to pay detailed attention to environmental requirements when thinking of acquiring old high end systems.
posted by paulsc at 9:03 AM on August 29, 2009

If you really want to do this, the people to talk to are probably the folks at the Digibarn (near Santa Cruz, CA) and a fellow named Jim Curry who has some old Crays in a pole barn (in WI).
posted by dhartung at 12:04 PM on August 29, 2009

Just an idea -I've always wanted to purchase an old broken Cray, cheap - just for the case, then gut it and retro-fit it with a cluster inside. That would be cool.
posted by TravellingDen at 1:17 PM on August 29, 2009

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