Burton Smith was a Microsoft technical fellow and was co-founder and chief scientist of Tera Computer Company, which became Cray Inc. after acquiring Cray Research from SGI in 2000. He was also a member of Crays board of directors.
He remained humble despite international recognition, including accolades like the 2003 Seymour Cray Award from IEEE "for ingenious and sustained contributions to designs and implementations at the frontier of high performance computing". When confronted with the magnitude of his contributions to the industry, he downplayed his own role and shared credit with other great minds.
Burton Smith's quick thinking and natural leadership served him well, whether he was solving a complex computing problem or shepherding us away from the office windows during an earthquake.
While Burton Smith was best-known for being a hardware architect, he also looked at the broader picture - including software and programming languages - and the important interplay between each part of the system. He embraced hardware-software co-design.
Back in the early Tera days, colleague Richard Korry asked Burton Smith why they couldn't cool the supercomputer using just air. "He proceeded to grab some scratch paper", stated Richard Korry, "and explained how to calculate the heat transfer characteristics of cooled air and the heat density of the chips. After some quick calculations he came up with the result that air flow of Mach 2 could do the trick, but that liquid cooled would be much easier."
Cray's Brad Chamberlain shared an anecdote from the early 2000's: "Just after I'd started at Cray, we were trying to schedule something and he grinned and asked, 'Have you seen my calendar app?' (This, at a time when Blackberrys and PDAs were getting pretty commonplace.) He proceeded to pull out a well-creased sheet of paper with tons of phone numbers, dates, etc. on it that appeared to just be a huge text file printed in a tiny font, and proceeded to take off his glasses, squint, and pore over it for what he was looking for. For someone so technically savvy, it was refreshingly old-school." But Brad Chamberlain reported that during a more recent encounter, Burton Smith pulled out a smartphone - "which was both shocking and natural".
Technical meetings during Burton Smith's days at Cray could get heated, sparked by passionate innovators with different points of view. His phrase of choice when that happened was usually "Peace ... peace." It was his way of saying that he heard and respected each person's opinion, but "let's take it down a notch". He wielded his authority with grace.
As one colleague stated: "He was an amazing human being."
"Burton made a huge impact, not only on Cray but on the entire supercomputing industry. He will be missed by many and his ideas will continue to be important for a very long time", stated Peter Ungaro, Cray's president and CEO.