Microsoft eyes supercomputing market through software

With today's beta release of Windows Compute Cluster Server, Microsoft Corp. is hoping to enter the high-performance computer market?or at least the lower reaches of that market.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company is pitching the operating system to engineers and researchers "who would like some power, but don't want to have to take their computer jobs to a supercomputer center," said John Borozan, group product manager for the Windows server division. By running this operating system on groups of servers, offices and departments could run small supercomputing clusters.

A departmental implementation of a high-performance computer (HPC) cluster may run about $50,000 to $250,000, Microsoft estimates. The cluster sizes could range from four to 64 nodes. According to Borozan, a typical four-node system may yield about 10 billion floating-point operations per second (GFLOPS) of computational power, depending on the hardware used.

The Windows Cluster Server is based on the Windows Server 2003 server software, but has additional features that allow computers to be yoked together to work in parallel on computationally intensive tasks.

The package includes an open-source message passing interface (MPI) library for passing data among multiple machines. The MPI library, called MPI Chameleon or MPICH2, was developed by Argonne National Laboratory. Microsoft added performance and security enhancements.

The server software will also come with cluster management software and a job scheduler to coordinate workloads.

Traditionally, Unix and Linux-based machines have dominated the supercomputer cluster space. As such, Microsoft is working with independent software vendors and universities to generate more HPC tools for its own platform. A number of HPC software vendors have ported their applications over to this HPC version of Windows, including MatLab from The MathWorks Inc., and Mathematica from Wolfram Research Inc.

Microsoft will offer a version of its Excel spreadsheet that can be run across a multi-node cluster, according to Borozan. Users can also build their own applications using Microsoft Visual Studio and the .NET framework.

Beyond the .NET languages, Microsoft is also working with third parties to build compilers for other languages favored in the HPC space, such as Fortran.

To pull data from Unix file systems, the Compute Cluster Server comes with a copy of Microsoft Services for Network File System, which allows Microsoft Windows machines to access NFS-based drives.

On the hardware side of things, Windows Cluster Server can run on x86 64-bit microprocessors?specifically Intel's EM64T Xeon and Pentium chips and AMD's Athlon and Opteron. It will not run on Intel Itanium processors, Borozan said. Out of the box, the software will work Gigabit Ethernet and Infiniband interconnects.

The full production release of the server software is scheduled for the first half of 2006.

Joab Jackson is an associate writer for Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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