IF today's corporations are downsizing - moving from large mainframe computers to networks of smaller, desktop machines - tomorrow's corporations may do exactly the opposite.
Many computer companies are betting that businesses in the next three to five years will start using machines that are bigger and faster than mainframes. These machines are called supercomputers. New technologies may push the supercomputer out from its small niche in laboratories and universities to a much bigger market of business applications.
"Two things have to happen for it to really hit the prime time," says Jeff Canin, a supercomputer analyst for Solomon Brothers. First, big companies have to commit to building new types of computers. Second, "the software sector [has] to catch up with the hardware."
The first trend is already taking place. Major-league players such as IBM, Convex in conjunction with Hewlett-Packard, NCR, and other big computermakers are moving to build new kinds of high-end machines. Meanwhile, companies that build workstations, such as Silicon Graphics, are pushing their technolgy into this high-end market niche.
"All the big players will have their toe in the market," says Gary Smaby, president of his own computer-industry advisory firm in Minneapolis. This is stirring up the supercomputer market as never before.
"It's going to be a real fight," adds Christopher Willard, manager of high-performance technology for international Data Corporation, a market research firm in Framingham, Mass. "It's kind of like a game of musical chairs. There aren't enough seats for everybody."
Nowhere is the promise - and turmoil - of this new market clearer than here in Minnesota where Cray Research Inc. is changing its focus. Cray Research is the world's leading supercomputer maker. It continues to build traditional high-end machines called Vector computers. These have one or more superfast chips specifically designed to handle challenging technical problems typically found in laboratories or universities.
But Cray is also broadening its line to try to take advantage of the new technologies. Last year, it began selling entry-level supercomputers that have sold well. These machines could compete with the workstation companies that are tyring to push their technology into the low-end of this high-performance computing market. But Cray is spending even more to create new machines around a technology called massively parallel processing, or MPP.
On paper, MPP looks very powerful. Instead of trying to bypass the laws of physics with one superfast chip, MPP allows manufacturers to string together hundreds, even thousands, of microprocessors to tackle a problem. These machines could have great advantages. They are cheaper to build and they are scalable. That means that if companies have to tackle a hard problem that is beyond the capapbility of their supercomputer, they would not have to buy a new machine. With MPP, they could just add more micropr ocessors.
MPP machines have already proved themselves in certain special categories of problems.
"If they worked for high-performance aircraft, can we use them for more mundane industries - cooking meatballs in a can, designing golf clubs?" asks Mr. Willard. "There are a lot more people who are interested in a well-cooked meatball than will ever kick the tires of a high-performance aircraft."
Some of the vendors building MPP machines believe this architecture will take over the industry. "All larger computers in the not-too-distant future are going to be based on the highly parallel architecture," says Bob Rockwell, executive vice president of marketing for Kendall Square Research Corporation in Waltham, Mass. "If you believe that, then everyone will be our competitor."
In practice, however, MPP has proved very difficult to implement. With one exception, off-the-shelf software doesn't yet exist to break up a problem so that many processors can work on it at the same time.
"We have got to get over this chicken and egg question," of non-existant software, says Martin Walker, director of Cray's parallel applications.
The company is linking up developers and potential end-users in a formal program to create new software using Cray's upcoming MPP machines. The company says it will ship its first MPP units this fall.