By Tom Still

CHIPPEWA FALLS – Until now, if you heard the words “petaflop,” “teraflop” and “exaflop,” you might have thought they described something your dog left on the neighbor’s lawn, your personal life and your career… in that order.

Fortunately, that’s wrong. They define computing operations at speeds so dizzying most people find it difficult to comprehend – and yet those computing speeds are being achieved or conceived by a company with deep Wisconsin roots.

Cray Inc., a company founded by Chippewa Falls native Seymour Cray in the early 1970s, has produced some of the world’s fastest supercomputers and continues to create high-end jobs in Wisconsin. The Cray Inc. story, while not without its ups and downs over the decades, symbolizes how world-class technology companies can thrive in Wisconsin with a commitment to research and development and a quality workforce.

In an era when most computers have become simultaneously smaller and more powerful, the notion of supercomputers may surprise those who believe larger systems went the way of the punch-card dinosaurs. For many applications, however, there’s no substitute for supercomputers.

The Cray Jaguar, or XT5-HE, in operation at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, was rated the world’s fastest supercomputer in an industry report earlier this year. How fast is Jaguar? It has a top speed of 2.3 petaflops, with one petaflop equaling 1,000 trillion calculations per second. It would take the average personal computer 10 hours to match what Jaguar can crank out in one second (about 20 trillion operations) and nearly a month to run the number of operations it can perform in a minute.

Jaguar is used by scientists to conduct research in astrophysics, climate science and nuclear energy. Other Cray computers in operation are used for similar missions, as well as engineering, defense, personalized medicine and more. Because simulation and predictive technologies are new pillars of scientific research, supercomputers are irreplaceable tools.

Irreplaceable, that is, until a faster computer comes along. Cray wants to produce a supercomputer with exaflop speed within the decade. That’s 10 to the 18th power operations per second (one quintillion), versus 10 to the 15th for a petaflop and 10 to the 12th for a teraflop.

For the Wisconsin economy, that race for ever-more powerful (and energy efficient) supercomputers means Cray will continue to invest in R&D as well as production. With 880 employees worldwide, the publicly held Cray Inc. has about 250 employees in Chippewa Falls and another 200 in St. Paul, Minn., with the remainder spread between Seattle, Wash., Austin, Texas, and about 30 world locations. Cray’s manufacturing all takes place in Chippewa Falls.

Its supercomputer systems sell for as little as $500,000 and as much as $150 million, according to David Kiefer, Cray’s vice president and a longtime Wisconsin resident. The average price tag is somewhere in the “tens of millions of dollars,” he said.

The company has received about $200 million in orders for its new XE6 system from customers such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense, Sandia National Laboratory and the United Kingdom’s equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation. About two-thirds of Cray’s sales are in the United States.

“Cray has really been gaining in market share and financial stability,” Kiefer said. “We think we’re well-positioned for the future.”

That wasn’t always the case. After its high-flying early years, Cray struggled in the late 1990s before being acquired in 2000 by a Seattle group that immediately renamed the new company Cray and forged ahead. Over time, Cray or its former employees have spawned other computing and software companies in the Chippewa Valley, including SGI, Chen Systems, TTM Technologies, Celestica and Silicon Logic Engineering.

It’s a cluster that helps define the Chippewa Valley as well as Wisconsin – all because Seymour Cray longed to return home nearly 40 years ago after a successful career at Control Data in the Twin Cities.

Cray’s competitors range from IBM and SGI to emerging companies in China and Japan, yet its “brand” endures in a world that demands supercomputers which do more in less time and with less energy. For Wisconsin, Cray is a brand that tells other global companies they can grow and compete here.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.