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Build your own Cray-1 supercomputer

14 Oct 2014

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Although today's smartphones carry chips that are way powerful than supercomputers created decades ago, a hardware hacker still built his own 1:10 Cray-1, a supercomputer released in 1976 that ran at 80MHz and had up to 250MFLOPS.

Chris Fenton developed a tiny version of the original Cray-1 using a Xilinx Spartan-3E 1600 development board, which was programmed to match the prime supercomputer's architecture, and a hand-written software that also tried to simulate the original operating system. To build the chassis, Fenton used medium-density fibreboard, balsa, pine, glue and paint.


Fenton's Cray-1 vs the original Cray-1

According to Extreme Tech, the original Cray-1 weighed in at about 5.5 tons, which included its Freon refrigeration system. It contained 1,662 printed circuit boards, each carrying up to 144 integrated circuits.

In addition, the supercomputer was circular so that circuit boards could be placed in exact distances from each other. This made communication between each module possible. If copper wires were slightly shorter or longer, the computer would not work.

But thanks to Moore's Law, Fenton did not have to create such a humongous machine. All he had to do was purchase a Xilinx FPGA.

But there's one thing that Fenton failed to achieve. He was not able to obtain a copy of the Cray-1 software, which explains why he only has an approximation of the supercomputer's OS. He did try to get it from different governmental agencies through Freedom of Information requests and from the Computer History Museum, but neither bore any good result.

The hacker said he was able to track down someone with an 80MB "disc pack" from the Cray-1 Maintenance Control Unit, a separate computer that had a sole purpose of booting the Cray-1. However, he had not seen what's on the discs yet.

Cray-1 architecture

Cray-1 architecture

To compensate for this slight let-down, Fenton writes software directly in machine code, while using the block diagram of the original Cray-1 architecture. The 1:10 model only manages to reach 50MHz so far, but this is due to Fenton's choice of FPGA. He could have easily hit 80MHz had he opted for a more expensive one.

Other designers and hackers can also replicate the original supercomputer. Fenton has made it easy for DIY enthusiasts by releasing all of the source files—the Verilog files for programming the FPGA and a Python version of the Cray Assembly Language compiler for writing the software.

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