For those that know me, I’m kind of a “life is too short” kind of guy. I liked to fail fast, move on, and not look back.

However, in catching up with the VP of Sales of Ardent last night, I was reminded one of the few times I did return for closure.

National Supercomputer Centers
For a decade starting in 1985, the National Science Foundation (NSF) established and spent a pile of money (~$50 million/year) on four supercomputing centers in the U.S. – Cornell University; University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center at Carnegie Mellon University; and the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California at San Diego. The ostensible goal of these centers was to allow scientists and researchers access to supercomputers to simulate commercial phenomena that were too expensive, too dangerous or too time consuming to physically build.

The reality was that the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Laboratories used supercomputers to run their hydrodynamics codes for nuclear weapon design and the National Security Agency used them to decrypt codes. But with the cold-war winding down these agencies could no longer be counted on to provide Cray Research with enough business to sustain the company. Commercial applications needed to be found that could take advantage of this class of computers.

The search for commercial supercomputer applications was good news for Ardent, as this was our business as well. But bad news was that the supercomputing centers had concluded that they could justify their existence (and budget) only by buying the biggest and most expensive supercomputers Cray Research made.

We Lost the Deal
At Ardent we were building a personal supercomputer powerful enough to run and display numerical simulations just about the time the National Science Foundation was funding these centers. I remember that the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center had put out a request for a proposal for a supercomputer to replace the Cray X-MP they installed in 1986. In reading it, there was no doubt that it was written only in a way that Cray could respond.

I realized that given the amount of money the Supercomputing Center wanted to spend on buying the new Cray Y-MP (list price $35 million,) we could put an Ardent personal supercomputer next to every scientist and researcher connected to the university. I responded to their RFP by proposing that Ardent build the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center a distributed supercomputing environment with hundreds of Ardent personal supercomputers rather than a monolithic Cray supercomputer.

As one could imagine this was the last thing the supercomputer center management wanted to hear. All their peers were buying Cray’s, and they wanted one as well. We had support from the scientists and researchers who had bought one of our machines and were beginning to see that distributed computing would ultimately triumph, but bureaucracy marched on, and we lost the bid.

In my career I’ve been involved with lots of sales deals, and for some reason losing this was the one deal I never forgot. Maybe because a win here would have meant success rather than failure for the company, perhaps because I really believed we could make the impossible happen and win. For whatever reason, I hated that particular Cray that got installed in Pittsburg.

Fast forward 15 years. Retired for a year, I ran across an article that said, “$35 Million Dollar Supercomputer For Sale for Scrap.”  It was the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center Cray Y-MP that had beaten me at Ardent.  It was for sale on Ebay.

I bought the Cray.

It took two semi-trailers to deliver it.

It sat in my barn next to the tractors and manure for five years. I had the only farm capable of nuclear weapons design.

Cray called two years ago and bought it back for parts for an unnamed customer still running one.


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17 Responses

  1. Haha, closure is well worth the effort when an entertaining tale can be shared!
    I experienced a microscopic variant of this with a roleplaying game I and a friend wrote up over the last 10-11 years. We kept putting it off, and rewriting it. It was an evolutionary Frankenstein. Finally I passed my buddy a few bucks to put it together in a form we can put out for free. Who knows, maybe one other person will enjoy playing it and I’ll have the seductive and delusional peace of mind of seeing it out in the wild.

  2. So, how much did Cray buy it back for?

    Was it a profitable Flip?

  3. I have visions of that poor Cray locked up out by the barn. I hope you adhered to the Geneva conventions.

  4. > I bought the Cray.

    You’re my hero.

  5. Quote from CRAY seller at Pittsburg: “We’re basically about $75,000 ahead of where would have been if we hadn’t done the eBay thing.”

    And taxpayers are only out $35M on that one machine. What a deal.


  6. […] A entrepreneur’s idea of closure. Longtime tech entrepreneur Steve Blank says he’s always been a guy who “liked to fail fast, move on, and not look back.” But today he writes about the one time he just had to get closure. It involved two semi-trailers, $45,000, and a computer that could design a nuclear weapon. […]

  7. What an AWESOME story. Love it. Love it. Love it… Great closure.

  8. I remember when we sold that machine. Clearing out space for another machine that is now gone as well. And where are we today…distributed computing.

  9. Great story! There is nothing harder than changing customer behavior, except maybe changing the procurement department’s behavior. Of course when you do succeed at changing customer behavior, you have a game changer.

  10. Such is the life worth living for, such is the life worth dying for.

  11. They had supercomputers back in the 1950’s. I thought that was interesting.

  12. […] Closure For those that know me, I’m kind of a “life is too short” kind of guy. I liked to fail fast, move on, and not […] […]

  13. So, Steve, is there any lesson to be learnt? Was Ardent’s business model flawed from the start for being so short on potential customers with deep pockets? Was it your error or cruel fate? And what did Ardent VCs say when they found out they lost all they invested (and how much they lost)?

  14. Did you put your pinky next to the corner of your mouth and demand “1 beellion dollars”?

  15. Very entertainment.. Good closure, Steve!
    You probably know this customer’s buying scenario would not fit into your sales process/strategy. You just can’t change this mainstream customer with a direct approach.
    I bet there are a lot more wasteful spending when the purse-holders are always on the risk-averse side. Any guerilla sales tactics somebody may know for situation like this?

    I hope you make some good deals on that machine when Cray bought it back 🙂

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