On a day like today but in 1985, Cray Research launched the most powerful supercomputer on the market. Known as Cray 2, the computer moved away from the company’s flagship design that was used in science fiction movies. Although on the other hand, it was the first to reach 1.9 GFLOPS thanks to its four processors.
Cray’s new supercomputer reached 244 MHz speed, something that would not surprise anyone today. As a reference, an entry-level smartphone like the Xiaomi Redmi 9C has an eight-core 2 GHz processor. Still, it is important to mention the contribution of Cray 2 to the world of computing.
Cray 2 was the first Cray supercomputer model to use multiple processing units. Seymour Cray solved this through the use of novel packaged ECL integrated circuits. To overcome the bottleneck, his engineers integrated 10 smaller computers into the system. These dealt with external disk or tape storage, thus throwing the data into memory when the processor was busy.
A local memory block connected to the four processors through a very fast bus was later implemented. The memory was fed with data by a foreground processor, something we know today as the loading or storage unit. To solve the size problem, Seymour Cray designed packaged circuit boards that used liquid immersion cooling.
Although liquid cooling is a popular solution we see in powerful gaming computers, doing so in 1985 was a feat. Cray 2 was immersed in a fluorocarbon-based liquid refrigerant manufactured by 3M. Thanks to this feature, the supercomputer earned the nickname “Bubbles”, as the circuits reached such high temperatures that the liquid boiled and could be seen on the glass panels.
Unlike its predecessor, the Cray22 did not enjoy the same popularity and turned out to be a failure. Its high price – $15 million – and months of delay relegated it to the background. The supercomputer was used in nuclear weapons research by the US. It later found space in some universities because it used a Unix-like operating system.
Advances in circuit packaging forced Cray to change her appearance, leaving behind Steve Chen’s sleek design that included long panels and seats. Later the company returned to the original design with the Cray Y-MP. The latter has a cameo in the 1992 film, The Snoops, with Robert Redford and Dan Aykroyd.
Although a modern-day smartphone is infinitely more powerful than the Cray-2, this supercomputer held the title of the world’s fastest until 1990.