International Business Machines Tuesday unveiled new features for its mainframe computers that should enable it to compete in the supercomputer market long dominated by Cray Research.
Industry analysts agreed that the enhancements to IBM’s mainframe line would broaden its supercomputing capabilities but that it still needed to develop its own full-blown supercomputer to compete effectively in the market for the world’s fastest computers.
IBM said the features added to its ES/3090 mainframe line, designed primarily for commercial computing jobs, would allow the machines to tackle a wider range of supercomputing tasks. They would help the computer giant take on Cray, which currently dominates the $1-billion-a-year market.
Mainframes are big computers used widely by businesses and governments to control the flow of information around the world. They are at the heart of airline reservation systems and the international network that links banks.
Supercomputers are used mainly by scientists for complex jobs like molecular modeling, fluid dynamics and technical design. They are also used by governments for code breaking, weapons design and other national security jobs.
Cray is the top supercomputer firm, but it faces increased competition from three big Japanese companies, Fujitsu Ltd., Hitachi Ltd. and NEC Corp.
IBM has thus far competed at the periphery of the supercomputer market, selling souped-up versions of its 3090 mainframes that can handle some of the number-intensive applications usually reserved for the larger machines.
IBM said the capabilities unveiled Tuesday were part of an evolutionary strategy aimed at making its existing mainframes simulate supercomputers until it can develop a full supercomputer.
It said its Supercomputing Systems Extensions will boost speed and processing power in numerically intensive applications. The three systems are called IBM Clustered Fortran, IBM High Speed Channel and IBM Parallel Input/Output Access Method and will be available no later than the fourth quarter of this year.
David Wehrly, an IBM supercomputing development executive, said, “We expect that the 3090s with their enhancements will be significantly competitive with the Cray machines.”
Analysts said IBM’s ability to link 12 of its fastest mainframe processors--which it said could operate at 10 times the speed of one unit--would allow it to nibble at the bottom end of the supercomputer market.
But some wondered whether this approach will pay off. “It has certain enhanced capabilities,” said S. G. Warburg analyst David Wu, referring to the 3090s. “But if you want to drive a fast car, buy a Porsche. At the moment, that is what Cray is making.”
Indeed, analysts said IBM may be buying time until its alliance with Supercomputer Systems Inc. produces a new generation of supercomputer, expected in the mid-1990s. IBM holds a minority stake in SSI, a company started two years ago by former Cray designer Steve Chen.
Analysts cautioned that, by waiting for the SSI machine, IBM may be beaten to the punch by the two Cray groups and the Japanese.
Earlier this month, Cray announced a major restructuring in which it will spin off its Cray-3 project into a separate firm, Cray Computer Corp., headed by founder Seymour Cray.
The move followed Control Data Corp.'s decision to close down its money-losing supercomputer unit, Cray’s only American competitor. The announcement raised concern that the United States could eventually lose its lead in the industry.
IBM, with more than $50 billion a year in sales, has deep pockets for supercomputer research and has strong reason to keep pace, analysts said.
“The current IBM approach to supercomputing is not much more than a toe in the water for IBM,” said Needham and Co. analyst Gary Smaby. “It is trying to buy time until the Steve Chen (project) comes to fruition, or an internal development.”
But IBM will have to compete with two new Cray machines expected by 1992. “If they don’t have a product by then, they will have to wait for the next generation,” Smaby said.