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Software // Enterprise Applications
11:40 AM

Supersized Challenge

Microsoft is an afterthought in supercomputing. Changing that will take overcoming Linux--and recruiting a new breed of employee.

The most powerful lessons in life sometimes draw from long-ago experiences. So it may have been when Bill Gates reminisced last week about bypassing Harvard's computer-science classes 30 years ago. "I was taking physiological psychology and economics," the school's most famous nongraduate recalled. "If you look at my course sign-up, you wouldn't think I was a software person at all."

Now, like its founder back then, Microsoft is taking a more-interdisciplinary approach. Broad changes in computing, science, and education are compelling the company to look beyond personal and business computing for its next advances. One of the most important is the rarified stratum of supercomputing, where its Windows operating system is a nonfactor today. Gates predicts the kind of supercomputing server clusters used by a small but growing number of companies will become a foundation of business computing, helping drive the next breakthroughs in science, medicine, product design, and finance.

To even get its foot in the door, however, Microsoft needs better products to unseat a well-entrenched Linux operating system. And perhaps more difficult, it needs new talent. The explosion of fields like genomics and nanotechnology is interwoven with leaps in software, which means many of today's most-computer-savvy graduates major in biology, physics, or chemistry--fields where Microsoft isn't seen as a prestige employer. Those realities will put Gates' interdisciplinary approach to the test.

Gates and conference chair William Kramer, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, answer questions at the supercomputing conference.-- Photo by John Froschauer/Bloomberg News

Gates and conference chair William Kramer, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, answer questions at the supercomputing conference.

Photo by John Froschauer/Bloomberg News
In a keynote at the SC05 supercomputing conference and a subsequent interview in Seattle last week, Gates laid out his plan for entering the scientific-computing market. Microsoft will release a special version of Windows; launch a multimillion-dollar outreach program to harness the high-performance computing IQ of professors at 10 universities in the United States, Germany, China, and elsewhere; and increase the degree to which its 600-plus researchers collaborate with scientists in fields such as AIDS research, astronomy, and oceanography. Given the expanded use of scientific computing in industries such as aerospace, auto engineering, pharmaceuticals, medical imaging--even consumer-product design--the effects could be widespread.

"When we say science, think about people designing cars, think about people designing planes, think about people thinking through the design of a Web site," Gates said. "It's not just new medicines, although that alone would justify all this work. It's not just modeling the environment, although that alone is a supercritical thing that we absolutely need to do."

Microsoft last week issued a second beta-test release of a new version of Windows designed for scientific workloads due in the first half of next year. The 64-bit operating system, Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003, is designed to distribute computing across clusters of as many as 100 or 200 machines--relatively small potatoes in the supercomputing market but far more than the company's software has been capable of. Microsoft says it will be priced lower than the business edition of Windows Server 2003, which runs $800 in volume.

The company also is designing new capabilities for its graphical development tools that could help scientists program those clusters. "Scientists have all this data but can't really bring it together and get insights into it," Gates said. "They spend a lot of their time not thinking deep scientific thoughts but rather re-entering data and writing code that they shouldn't have to."

The Linux Challenge
With clustering technology, users can chain together dozens or hundreds of inexpensive PC servers with special cabling to run software that distributes work among the processors. The approach lets universities, supercomputing research centers, and corporate IT departments access supercomputing power at much lower costs than specialized architectures have allowed. So far, though, cluster installations have been dominated by Linux, since many of supercomputing's practitioners cut their teeth in the shareware world of Unix. It's a group that's not particularly inclined to use Windows in the same way. "There aren't a lot of people who like Linux and like Windows," says Pete Bradley, an associate fellow for high-intensity computing at Pratt & Whitney, a United Technologies Corp. division.

The maker of commercial and military aircraft engines, a longtime supercomputing user, has added to its arsenal a network of 2,050 engineering workstations running Windows for message-passing applications when the machines sit idle at night. It also has a 64-node Windows cluster at its East Hartford, Conn., headquarters and a small Windows cluster in Seattle. But much of its staff expertise in high-performance computing is in Linux. "Microsoft sees this rapidly growing segment that's almost all Linux," Bradley says. "As cluster computing is becoming mainstream, this is clearly an area Microsoft is going to want to play in."

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