Just In Time For The Holidays: Give The Gift Of Cray

The name Cray, as in [Seymour Cray] is synonymous with supercomputing. If you hurry, you can bid on a Cray J90/J916 on eBay. You might want to think about where to put it though. It is mounted on a trailer, requires 480V, and the shipping is $3,000!

First introduced in 1994, the J90 was an “entry level” machine. This particular machine supported up to 16 CPUs (each CPU was actually two chips) running at a blazing 100 MHz. The memory system was more impressive, achieving 48 GB/s.

The Cray T90 computer was much faster (and more expensive) but none of these computers had the performance of a typical PC’s graphics card these days. Even your phone may have more raw computing power, depending on how you choose to measure. Don’t fear, though. Cray Research still makes supercomputers that can eat your phone for lunch.

Still, at the time, this was big iron. The I/O system used SPARC processors that would have been entire workstations in that era. The eBay listing says it might need a little work — we weren’t clear if the seller meant in general or just the cooling system, but you can assume this is a fixer-upper. Apparently, the Retro-Computing Society of Rhode Island restored a similar beast so it can be done.

If your holiday budget doesn’t have room for a real supercomputer, here’s one that is 1/10 the size and much less expensive. Or, you could just pretend.

24 thoughts on “Just In Time For The Holidays: Give The Gift Of Cray

  1. Protip: don’t buy this expecting to be able to scrounge software and documentation.

    Most of the installation and configuration of these machines was done by Cray employees, and the rights to older collateral was lost after SGI sold Cray Research to Tera in 2000. Calling Cray asking for abandonware hobbyist help won’t do any good because they can’t.

    1. Yeah, unless you have connections to others who can get you stuff; it’s really hard to work on these machines. JP Hindin (JPKiwiGeek on YouTube) got one from another collector and has spent more than a year working on and off on it; even with the help of others who have running machines.

        1. A Craytastrophe?

          Isn’t it interesting that the relay old retro computers had such exotic and detailed aesthetic features, almost like a fashion statement or sci-fi movie prop. Maybe it *was* the influence of sci-fi?

          1. I guess you meant “really” and not “relay”? Can’t remember seeing a nice looking relay machine :p

            Making things look nice is always far beyond making the machine work. The designer of the external is given the dimensions and placement of parts and have to wrap something nice around it.

            Yesterdays supercomputers tend to be a single unit or at least set of units. Easy to work with design wise.

            The machines of today are clusters of machines where cooling, power and signals are routed underneath the floor. They have to be uniform cabinets for several reasons, packing density, uniformity and making maintenance easier.
            Not much to work with IOW but they still try (mostly nice graphic designs on the front and some tweaks on the box shape).

    1. It may surprise you but a lot of these old school bargains have low or no feedback scores. The professional ebayers and even amateur ebayholics don’t normally get access to the really cool stuff. A lot of it comes with some company cleaning out the basement and someone suggesting to throw the equipment on ebay.

      1. Exactly. When I bought my IBM Mainframe, the seller had 1 feedback. The company created their eBay account literally just to sell off their old hardware. Didn’t even think twice before dropping 2 grand on it.

    1. It’s actually not too bad! The picture of the sticker says 200 – 240VAC @24A or only around 4.8 – 5.76 KW max. Heck, that’s about the draw of a desktop with a few Radeon RX Vega GPUs. :-)

      1. I see what you did there.

        Nevertheless, your neighbor is going to wonder when they see the trailer parked in front of your house.
        “What’s this?”
        “Oh just my 1989 super computer”

        1. That doesn’t sound right, 9600 Watt for a damn stove? Maybe if it’s a diner or something, but ‘any house’?
          Not that I have any knowledge on the subject. But I do have an electric oven and microwave and they can run simultaneously without requiring such power.

  2. I worked at a place that had at various times a X-MP, a Y-MP, a C90, a T90, and the original (serial #1, IIRC) Tera. I think the J90 was the only one we never had. I hope it finds a great home. At least it’s not Flourinert cooling!

  3. I had the privilege to meet Seymour Cray (in Chippewa Falls) at the onset of my career and lived through the Cray J90, T90 and Cray-2 eras. While the latter wasn’t a bad architecture (Seymour went this route when he spun off CCC), the first 2 were pretty awful – both in terms of price/performance and acceptance.

    It is rumored that DEC (bought by COMPAQ, now owned by HPE) pre-purchased 100, J90’s in exchange for Cray Research using the DEC ALPHA chip for the T90 – not sure the accuracy here but that was kicked around Mendota Heights for several years

  4. Probably much more exciting than this auction listing is the paper on the NSA’s MARQUISE project. It improved the J90 with a bunch of exotic tech, including diamond chip substrates. And that was all back in the stone ages – 1994. Even today, 23 years later, this is really exciting stuff.

    And what were they *doing* with that hot-rodded J90? Building a “wideband channelizer” – aka, a Software Defined Radio! This was in large part an effort to stuff super computers into flying craft.


    The goal of the MARQUISE project is to demonstrate the impact of
    advanced packaging technologies on a commercial high performance
    computer architecture. Multi Chip Modules (MCMs), diamond
    substrates, and phase change spray cooling are used together to
    shrink a 4 processor, 1 GByte memory version of the Cray J90
    supercomputer from a cabinet system down to a form factor
    suitable for a 19 inch rack. Weight is reduced by 75% and volume
    is reduced by 80%. Code is currently executing on the MARQUISE
    test vehicle. The final SOLITAIRE prototype is scheduled for
    demonstration in late summer 1997.

  5. When I read about old super computers I’m still waiting for something that uses all the raw power of my GPU.
    It seems odd to have a modern system that is a hundred times more powerful than a supercomputer not so long ago and all that power doesn’t really seem to manifest itself, not even in games really.
    Mind you I’m sporting an AMD GPU so those CUDA-enhanced programs won’t do it for me, but I don’t have the impression those enhancement do as much as the numbers say it should either.
    I just feel there is quite an astronomical distance between the developers and the raw power in GPU.

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