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Microsoft Takes HPC to the Cloud

Microsoft launched Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 on Monday at the High Performance Computing Financial Markets conference in New York.

The new release is Microsoft's third version of its HPC offering, featuring improved capabilities to run in large clusters both locally and in the cloud. The server is optimized for 1,000 nodes, although it can scale higher than that, especially when cores and sockets are taken into account, Microsoft said. The previous version was limited to 256 nodes.

Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 adds support for Excel, allowing power users to perform workbook computations much faster. An Excel user can run a computation that typically takes two hours in just two minutes, Microsoft said.  For those looking for capacity in bursts, Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 can tap idle Windows 7 desktops to extend the capacity of a cluster and can access nodes via Windows Azure subscriptions.

"Think of this as one of the key shifts in our fleet for what we look at as this future of technical computing," said Bill Hilf, Microsoft's general manager for technical computing, speaking in the keynote address at the HPC conference.

(Readers can find a full Q&A with Hilf about the new server and Microsoft's HPC vision by clicking here.)

Hilf said integration within existing enterprises is a key feature of the server. Windows HPC Server can run jobs with a user's Active Directory credentials, letting IT tie it together with their security management policies, he said. With this release, HPC is poised for more mainstream computing tasks, Hilf added.

"That's our fundamental strategy," Hilf said, in the Q&A interview, following his keynote. "That's fundamentally why we exist, so the way to make it mainstream is you have to make the apps very simple, so it's almost like a Visual Basic or PHP application that will take advantage of it and make it so the IT stuff in the back is almost invisible."

Hilf said HPC Server's support for Windows Azure will make Microsoft's cloud computing platform more appealing to business and government customers for use in clusters. "I believe the technical computing workload will be the killer Azure app because the nature of these workloads consumes a ton of computers," he said. "We believe having an infrastructure with hundreds of thousands of servers is going to be very compelling."

Windows HPC Server consists of the core platform, which carries a list price of $475 per server. The additional Microsoft HPC Pack, priced at $450, provides management of the cluster via HPC Cluster Manager, "a single application [with] which an administrator can manage all aspects of the cluster," said Rae Wang, a senior program manager on Microsoft's HPC team, who gave demos of the tool during Hilf's keynote. "They can configure your product cluster, they can run diagnostics and generate charts and reports," she explained.

The tool also provides heat maps that allow an IT admin to view all the nodes in a cluster, and it provides the support for added services, including the ability to add Windows Azure to a cluster. Users can set policies for when Azure should kick in for added burst-type capacity. By adding Windows Azure support, customers can "add a large number of cores or servers on demand for a decent price without having to buy more hardware or building datacenters," Hilf said.

For those looking to add desktop PCs to an HPC cluster, Microsoft is offering HPC Pack for Workstation, which costs $100 for each client.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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