September 22, 2008
Supercomputers are continuing on a march from hyper-expensive, hyper-specialized machines toward a cheaper, more standardized future, if recent Microsoft moves are any indication. Last week, Microsoft announced that it has partnered with Cray to offer a $25,000 "personal" supercomputer. On Monday, it announced its second-generation Windows High Performance Computing Server 2008 has been released to manufacturing and will be more generally available soon.
"We think that a lot of the things that needed to be solved in supercomputing have been solved today," Bill Laing, VP of Microsoft's Windows server and solutions division, said in an interview. Laing pointed toward lower prices, a standard underlying version of Windows instead of a specialized or cobbled-together operating system, and several new features in HPC Server as ways Microsoft may facilitate broader adoption of supercomputers. Microsoft still lags far behind Linux for use as an operating system in supercomputers. But Windows has started creeping into the ranks of operating systems running the world's fastest supercomputers after only two years on the market, this year achieving the world's 23rd fastest system. Vince Mendillo, Microsoft's director of HPC marketing, said that Microsoft is offering a "complete solution" and called out Linux as a piecemeal, often difficult-to-deploy supercomputing platform. Windows HPC Server 2008 is based on much of the same underlying pieces as Windows Server 2008, and Microsoft says the transfer of skills from other versions of Windows should make Windows HPC Server an easier sell. The two operating systems share features like user account systems and Active Directory, upgrade and patching infrastructures, and event-tracking capabilities. "We got a great deal of reuse [of skills]," said Ricky Higgins, IT director of products and markets for British bank Lloyds TSB, a beta-testing partner that has been running Windows HPC Server 2008 to perform risk analysis. "There's certainly a lot of tooling in HPC that allows us to do more, but there's a takeout from Windows XP and Windows Server." Microsoft has improved a number of things in Windows Server HPC 2008. The company has simplified the installation and deployment process; added features to the operating system's management console, including the ability to monitor and report on system status; increased scalability; implemented a newer and faster networking stack; and gotten rid of single points of failure for HPC clusters. "We had a lot of feedback that they wasted a lot of time deploying and wanted to track what was going on with the system," Laing said. Microsoft is releasing HPC Server 2008 with more than 60 partners, including new software partners coming to the market, new hardware partners like Cray shoring up their supercomputing offerings, and more traditional Microsoft partners like Dell and IBM. According to Mendillo, resellers and system integrators are also increasing their interest in the supercomputing market because companies increasingly want to tie their supercomputers into business processes, rather than having them run specialized, isolated processes. "You not only want to run your high-performance apps, but want to take that out and create a workflow process for all that information," he said. One of the features Microsoft has included in HPC Server 2008 to help accomplish that is Service Broker, which helps HPC Server run better in a service-oriented architecture. At financial industry conference High Performance on Wall Street Monday, Microsoft demonstrated the ability using HPC Server to run Excel calculations locally on a desktop, transfer them to an HPC Server cluster, and report the results back to Excel, all transparently to the end user. Another application might be to surface calculation results in a collaborative SharePoint Web page, Mendillo said. By making the announcement at a financial industry conference, Microsoft signaled that it sees financial firms among its most coveted and important target buyers for HPC Server. The Wall Street event will be followed by 24 more targeting other industries, like one in Dubai aimed at the oil and gas market. When finally released, copies of Microsoft Windows HPC Sever 2008 will cost $475 per node and will run only on 64-bit machines. The Microsoft HPC Pack 2008, additional software for job scheduling, management, and high-speed networking, will cost extra.
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