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Former Cray and Microsoft executive Burton Smith. (Microsoft Photo)

Burton Smith, who played an instrumental role in advancing the development of high-performance computing at Cray and Microsoft, died Tuesday at the age of 77 in Burien, Wash.

Microsoft announced his death in a blog post Wednesday morning. The company described him as “a kind man always willing to help and give advice who shared generously of his deep stores of knowledge and also an innovator who consistently came up with completely new ideas for designing hardware.”

Smith co-founded Tera Computer Company, which moved to Seattle in 1988. In 2000 it acquired part of the legendary Cray Research supercomputer company, renaming itself as Cray, which is still cranking out big iron.

Tera was known for its early approach to the concept of multithreading, in which a computer’s processor is designed to handle more than one stream of instructions at a time. Also known as parallelism, this jump in system productivity became a standard part of high-performance computer design, and a lot of that work has filtered down into the chips used in PCs and smartphones today.

Smith joined Microsoft as a technical fellow in 2005, where, according to a 2009 profile in ZDnet, he worked on getting Microsoft caught up and focused on how multithreading and parallel processing would forever change system and software development.

“He touched many lives, made a profound impact in the world and will be missed by many,” said Todd Holmdahl, corporate vice president of Microsoft Quantum, in the post.

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