Even as Microsoft's Windows operating system has found a home in business computing markets from data processing to running highly trafficked Web sites, the company's flagship product has been largely shut out of scientific and technical computing domains. That could be about to change.
A new version of Windows for high-performance computers, which will be available to customers in August, powers a large cluster of machines at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois that could become one of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers when a new list of those systems is published at the end of this month. The group of Dell machines, which runs Microsoft's new Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003 software, contains 896 processor cores and can perform 4.1 trillion computations per second. The system has a very good chance of making the closely watched Top 500 list of the world's most powerful supercomputers, according to Jack Dongarra, a computer science professor at Tennessee who maintains the list.
The cluster's performance of 4.1 teraflops on the Linpack benchmark test would nearly double the processing speed of the current most powerful Windows installation, a cluster of Dell machines at Cornell University that performs 2.09 teraflops, or trillion floating point operations per second, and runs an older version of Windows. Dongarra and a group of computer scientists will present a new Top 500 list at a supercomputing conference in Dresden, Germany, on June 28.
Microsoft has completed development work on the new Windows software and plans to hand out an evaluation version at its TechEd conference in Boston next week, says Kyril Faenov, director of high-performance computing at Microsoft. "We've done our homework and think we have a very good chance" of making the Top 500 list, he says.
IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and other computer makers will ship systems loaded with the high-performance version of Windows. Microsoft has provided funding to the University of Tennessee and other universities to assist with software research that can improve the performance of Windows for technical applications.
Microsoft is investing aggressively in the market for supercomputing clusters as high-performance computing breaks out of niche technical markets into fields including financial analysis, engineering, and drug design. The high-performance market today is characterized largely by specialized systems capable of running many trillions of computations per second, or clusters of standard PC servers running the open-source Linux operating system connected by special cables. Sales of technical computing systems grew more than 30% in 2004 to $7.25 billion--faster than revenue growth in personal and business computing, according to research firm IDC. Sales of clusters grew even more, up 96%.
By releasing a version of Windows that includes widely used technical computing middleware, and by building support for high-performance applications into its Excel spreadsheet software and Visual Studio development tools, Microsoft hopes to capture market share from Linux-based systems. Customers of Windows Compute Cluster Server include Northrop Grumman, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and Merck & Co. Microsoft will charge $469 per computer for the software, which runs on microprocessors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices that use the extended 64-bit architecture.
As the 4.1-teraflop Windows cluster contends for a spot among the world's fastest systems, the Cornell machine could drop off the Top 500. That cluster is currently ranked at No. 310. The world's current fastest supercomputer is an IBM system at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, running at 280.6 teraflops.