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Microsoft HPC claim: Windows is cheaper than Linux

Microsoft's surprising claim about Windows HPC Server TCO

Microsoft has made some pretty bold claims about Linux throughout its longstanding love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with the open source operating system.

Complaints about Linux infringing on patents have been pretty commonplace. What you don't hear so often is Microsoft claiming that Windows is cheaper than Linux. 

But that is exactly what Microsoft said Monday when it released Windows HPC Server 2008 R2, the latest version of its software for building high-performance computing clusters.

Microsoft: We love open source

"Recent research demonstrates that Windows HPC Server is 32 percent to 51 percent less expensive than Linux-based HPC systems over five years," Microsoft said in a press release.

This "recent research" is a study sponsored by Microsoft and executed by the Crimson Consulting Group, which examines the total cost of an HPC deployment consisting of 250 compute nodes and 1,000 desktop nodes. The study compares Windows HPC Server to two Linux scenarios, one involving Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Platform LSF and the other involving Red Hat Enterprise Linux and DataSynapse GridServer.

Microsoft is nowhere near overtaking Linux when it comes to running the world's biggest and fastest supercomputers. The company is essentially arguing that for an average business, particularly one already running Windows, it would be cheaper to build an HPC cluster with Windows than with Linux. That's not the same as claiming that Windows is cheaper than Linux in all types of business computing scenarios, or that Windows would be the cheapest option for a large research organization that plans to build a huge supercomputing cluster from scratch.

But Microsoft gets support in its TCO claim from Earl Dodd, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Centers in Montana. Dodd runs both Linux- and Windows-based clusters for RMSC customers and says "the total cost of ownership is definitely cheaper on Windows than in Linux." However, Dodd's target market is small and mid-sized businesses, "the mere mortals," he calls them, who are generally running Windows to begin with and therefore need less training on Windows than on Linux.

"I'm not talking about the national labs," Dodd notes.

The Microsoft-sponsored TCO study says much of the Windows savings comes from integrating with existing infrastructure like Microsoft's Active Directory and System Center, and using a customer's "existing Windows Server skill sets to manage the HPC infrastructure."

The study therefore seems to assume that customers are more skilled in managing Windows than Linux. But it also argues that software acquisition costs are higher in a Linux scenario because "While the Linux operating system itself may be acquired at no cost, the rest of the HPC stack has to be purchased from vendors such as DataSynapse or Platform Computing." Although Linux itself can be acquired for free, "leading Linux vendors such as Red Hat make a business of charging for support," the study notes. (I asked Red Hat for a response but haven't heard back yet.)

The statement about Red Hat in the Microsoft-sponsored study is almost identical to ones Microsoft has made itself on its own website. One official Microsoft site that is apparently at least two or three years old compares Windows Server 2003 to Red Hat and asks the question "How can 'free' be this expensive?"

Another Microsoft site claims "Windows reduces TCO," and discusses Linux. But neither of these sites actually say that Windows is less expensive than Linux in the direct manner employed this week by Microsoft's HPC marketing team.

Although the Microsoft-sponsored TCO study focuses quite specifically on a scenario involving 250 compute nodes, a Microsoft official I spoke with says the results would hold true even in larger clusters.

"The results continue to scale linearly regardless of the size of the cluster," says Ryan Waite, a general manager for Microsoft's technical computing group.

Given that the Microsoft study claims Linux clusters are more expensive to manage because most companies already have Windows Server experts in-house, I also asked Waite whether the findings would be reversed for a Linux shop that has more expertise managing Linux than Windows. He denied that this would be the case.  

"The study was not about the cost of training. It's really about the cost of acquiring software," Waite says.

Microsoft's HPC push is likely to attract mid-sized businesses that are just getting started in high-performance computing. As the Microsoft-sponsored study says, HPC was "once considered the domain of only the most advanced researchers and scientists," but is now "becoming a much more mainstream capability, with its benefits now available to a wider range of applications in both commercial industries and academic institutions."

But if Windows HPC Server were truly less expensive than Linux, even in large-scale clusters, you might expect to see significant usage of Windows in the world's largest supercomputers. That is not the case. Among the 500 fastest supercomputers on the planet, just five run Windows and 455 run Linux, according to the Top 500 list of supercomputers.  

If Windows really is cheaper than Linux, then a lot of people are wasting money.

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter.

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