Windows powering one in ten HPC clusters, but not top supercomputers

"Windows is coming," analyst says

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Windows is powering more than one out of every ten installed HPC clusters according to a survey, but the success of Microsoft is mainly being seen with low-end customers while IBM and HP dominate the largest supercomputers.

As the SC10 supercomputing conference kicked off in New Orleans this week, analysts gathered to discuss the state of the market.

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"Windows is coming," said Intersect360 CEO Addison Snell, acknowledging that the typical supercomputing conference crowd might scoff at that notion. "Around this group, Windows is generally just good enough to get people to spit on the floor," Snell said.

Intersect360 surveyed users in late 2009 and early 2010 and found a total install base of 11.8% for Windows, up from 6.6% the previous year, with success coming particularly in commercial industries. Bio-science organizations and universities are still strongly aligned with Linux, he said.

Snell noted that the 11.8% figure represents total systems, not the number of nodes or revenue, two measures in which Windows is less likely to fare well."Windows does have a greater share of the smaller systems than the larger systems," Snell said.

IDC analysts backed up this observation, saying their research shows Windows capturing about 7% of HPC revenue. IDC's numbers also differ from Intersect360's in that IDC does not count as much of the commercial market. To IDC, high-performance computing is more "high-end simulation" than transaction processing. "You have to draw the line somewhere," said IDC analyst Earl Joseph.

The Windows revenue share has remained largely unchanged over the past several years, but the HPC market is growing overall and Windows is growing along with it, Joseph said. Intersect360 is undertaking a new survey to be published in early 2011, which Snell expects to show Windows improving upon its 11.8% share of installed systems. 

When it comes to the world's fastest supercomputers, as measured by the bi-annual Top 500 list, Windows only accounts for five of the 500 spots while 459 use Linux. Any industry-wide change would take many years. "It took most of a decade for the industry to switch from Unix to Linux, and that's almost the same system," Snell said.

Microsoft, however, says it's not aiming to replace Linux as the top supercomputing power. Rather, Microsoft is trying to bring HPC capabilities to the "bottom 500,000 computing users," encompassing markets to which HPC is typically out of reach.

Toward that end, Microsoft has upgraded Windows HPC Server with new integrations with the Windows Azure cloud service and job scheduling services that harness the power of idle Windows 7 desktops. Microsoft says it expects technical computing to be one of the top drivers of Azure usage, and rented out a booth that was one of the largest (possibly the largest) on the SC10 exhibition floor to lure new HPC customers.

SC10 has attracted a crowd of 10,000 attendees for hundreds of sessions and a 386,000 square-foot exhibit space.

Some other interesting supercomputing tidbits have emerged:

  • Total HPC spending in 2009 was $18.6 billion, according to Snell. The top five markets consuming HPC products are manufacturing, finance, bio-sciences, online gaming, oil and gas exploration. The market will see a 7.8% compound annual growth rate through 2014.
  • The HPC market grew 2% in the first half of 2010, "an absolute home run" given the recession, Joseph said. The highest end of the HPC market actually grew 65% in 2009, he said.
  • HP is the leader in selling HPC systems with 33.3% share, followed by IBM with 29.5% share, IDC said.
  • IBM, however, dominates the market for supercomputers, defined by IDC as systems costing $500,000 and up. IBM's share in this segment is 57.2%, compared to 27.4% for HP.
  • InfiniBand is continuing its rise on the Top 500 list, with 215 systems in the latest list, up from 182 one year ago. That gives InfiniBand 43% of the Top 500, and 61% of the Top 100, according to the InfiniBand Trade Association.
  • GPU (graphics processing unit) accelerators from the likes of Nvidia are making their presence felt, both at the top of the Top 500 list and in the HPC market at large. GPUs have raised concerns about programming, latency and efficiency, but "eventually speed wins," Snell says.
  • Snell expects the U.S. government to react to a Chinese system being crowed the fastest supercomputer in the world. The United States only has one of the top four spots in the latest list. "There is no way there's not a response in Congress," he says.

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