Microsoft amassing high-performance server software attack

Microsoft to go head-to-head with high-end Linux, Unix servers

Microsoft has built a strategy around the planned early-November release of its high-performance computing server that it hopes will be the catalyst to deliver massive computing power for future applications.

Microsoft will apply its strategy of "simplifying computing" to the costly and often complex high-performance computing world. In this case it is featuring its Windows HPC Server 2008 surrounded by Microsoft's collection of applications, management wares, development tools and independent software vendor community.

"We are not talking about a lot of unique product development here; it is mostly about packaging and coming up with appropriate licensing," says Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata. "But as HPC becomes more and more mainstream and used for all kinds of commercial roles, whether it is product design or business analytics, Windows is not such an unnatural fit as it might have been in the past."

Microsoft last week said it would release on Nov. 1 HPC Server 2008, the company's most competent move to date to offer parallel computing horsepower to corporations doing more real-time simulations, designs and number crunching.

Microsoft’s recent hardware-software partnership with Cray on  the CX1 “personal” supercomputer is only part of its plan to bring parallel processing power to the masses.

But the road is decidedly uphill.

Microsoft currently lays claim to less than 5% of HPC server market revenue, according to IDC. Those numbers compare with 74% for Linux and just more than 21% for Unix variants.

In addition, competitors such as Red Hat have been offering its Enterprise Linux for HPC Compute Nodes since last year. And Sun late last year reentered the HPC fray with its Constellation System.

Those sorts of challenges, however, have not deterred Microsoft in the past.

The company is betting users such as engineers will combine workflows running on their Windows workstations with Windows-based back-end HPC clusters, or move those workloads off the desktop and into an HPC infrastructure.

Microsoft also envisions such desktop/back-end combinations as Excel users performing a function call from their desktop, which in the background executes an agent that runs some computational algorithms on a networked HPC cluster and returns an answer. The user would have no concept of the back-end tied to Excel, which is widely used in financial services.

Since the 2006 release of Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003, Microsoft has been working with partners such as HP and Intel to create mass market appeal for HPC and the message may finally be striking a chord as prices drop and performance rises on technical computing platforms.

But Microsoft, experts say, isn't likely to climb the ladder and replace high-end HPC environments built on Linux and Unix.

The real opportunity is appealing to new buyers with a Windows desktop infrastructure looking anew at HPC for workgroups or departments.

IDC says HPC hardware revenue 2007 alone generated by workgroup and departmental platforms was nearly $5.5 billion, just more than half of the $10 billion total. The prices on platforms in those segments range from $100,000 and below (workgroup) to $100,000 to $250,000 (departmental).

Microsoft's recent hardware-software partnership with Cray on the CX1 "personal" supercomputer aimed at financial services, aerospace, automotive, academia, and life sciences and priced at $25,000 is testament to Microsoft's plan — as is the $475 per node price of HPC Server 2008.

That's not to say Microsoft won't make a run for the top. Earlier this year, a Windows Server 2008 HPC cluster built by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications garnered a No. 23 ranking on the list of the world’s top 500 largest supercomputers, achieving 68.5 teraflops and 77.7% efficiency on 9,472 cores.

But experts say Microsoft's sweet spot will be much lower down the list.

"The Microsoft strategy is aiming hardest at verticals where Windows is strong on the desktop and then extending that Windows environment upward," says Steve Conway, research vice president for technical computing at IDC. "It includes applications such as Excel and tools like Visual Studio so people can unify their desktop and server workflow."

Microsoft also plans to integrate HPC Server with its System Center tools for application-level monitoring and rapid provisioning by releasing an HPC Management Pack for System Center Operations Manager by year-end, according to Ryan Waite, product unit manager for HPC Server 2008.

The company is aligning HPC Server 2008 with Visual Studio Team Services, and F#, a development language, designed to help write new applications and rewrite old ones for parallel computing environments.

"We are looking at the holistic system," says Vince Mendillo, director of HPC in the server and tools division at Microsoft.

Familiarity is the big theme. Windows HPC Server 2008 is built on the 64-bit edition of Windows Server 2008.

The platform combines into a single package the operating system with a message passing interface and a job scheduler built by Microsoft.

The server software, built to scale to thousands of cores, also includes a high-speed NetworkDirect RDMA, Microsoft's new remote direct memory access interface, and cluster interoperability through standards such as the High Performance Computing Basic Profile specification produced by the Open Grid Forum. The server features high-speed networking, cluster management tools, advanced failover capabilities and support for third-party clustered file systems.

"HPC is no longer a niche either in terms of hardware platform or in terms of pervasiveness," Illuminata's Haff says. "For the most part, it is using volume hardware and is being applied to all kinds of problems in all kinds of companies and organizations."

It is that trend that Microsoft is betting on.

"We can take people's apps on Windows workstations and automatically scale those apps with supercomputer capabilities on the back end," Microsoft's Waite says. "When you pull all those pieces together in an integrated fashion, HPC becomes easier to use."

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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