HPC Edition of Windows Server 2003 on Tap for 2005

Microsoft confirmed Wednesday that it will deliver the high performance computing version of Windows Server 2003 that the company has been hinting at for several weeks.

Windows Server 2003, HPC Edition, is expected to ship in the second half of 2005. With so much time before the delivery deadline, pricing and packaging decisions are far from final. For now, Microsoft says Windows Server 2003, HPC Edition, will offer customers a Windows-based solution with a single simplified environment for developing HPC applications, deploying HPC clusters and managing the clusters.

High performance computing generally refers to clusters with dozens or hundreds of machines all processing a single instance of an application. The sector's strongest supporters are in the academic and research communities, but the computing model is gaining momentum among certain business sectors, especially in digital content creation and for financial services applications such as risk management and equity management.

"The high performance computing market around parallel clusters, it's always been kind of looked at as a niche market," says Dennis Oldroyd, a director of Windows Server product management at Microsoft. "If you look at what IDC reports, these days it's maybe 3 percent to 4 percent of shipping servers. But it's growing rapidly, and we think that adoption by enterprises is going to be one of the factors in taking this mainstream."

IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky says the current market is small with low revenues, due to the miniscule budgets research operations often have. But he says the customers and researchers doing HPC are influential beyond their numbers and expenditures.

"As this kind of grid processing or utility computing infrastructure starts to spread to other commercial markets, the people who have been in the market longest, and have some experience, will have the advantage," Kusnetzky says. "I think what Microsoft is doing is coming up with a package that will be of interest to these communities, and starting to gain the experience necessary to compete later."

Microsoft's HPC announcement coincides with the International Supercomputing Conference in Heidelberg, Germany and the release this week of the 23rd edition of the Top 500 list of supercomputers. Supercomputers built from Intel-based clusters have surged in importance on the closely-watched list. The most recent ranking includes 287 Intel-based systems, up from 119 a year ago. But many, many more of those clustered servers run Linux than Windows.

Microsoft has customers and partners, including most prominently the Cornell Theory Center, working on HPC clusters with existing versions of Windows, but the software giant is not currently regarded as a leader in the segment.

Microsoft's Oldroyd attributes Linux' momentum in HPC in large part to the migration of these type of systems from Unix to the very similar Linux OS. While Kusnetzky agrees such familiarity is a big factor, the IDC analyst contends the bigger factor is price.

"With Microsoft, one would be obliged to pay for a license for each node in a computing cluster. If one is running a very big one, there are potentially 1,000 nodes. The people who are in this market do not have a lot of funds. If you look at Linux, it's possible to download a copy of the software, the parallel processing software, management tools for that and a database to store the management data and run on as many machines as one wants. And it's not even necessary to pay for any of that software," Kusnetzky says.

Microsoft is not yet saying how it will address the pricing challenge. A likely strategy is that Microsoft will spread around its beta software to early adopters at research houses to get high profile users, then concentrate on actually selling its HPC software later to corporate customers as the technology becomes more widely accepted in the enterprise. Those customers are likely to have larger budgets and smaller clusters, making software costs less of an obstacle.

As for features, Microsoft says the HPC Edition will focus on scalability, ease of use, security and low TCO. The HPC Edition is the first place that Microsoft will support the Message Passing Interface (MPI), a de facto industry standard for high performance computing. MPI is a multi-processing interface for sending messages, text and data among machines on the same network.

While HPC requires an entire software stack between the hardware and the clustered application itself, Oldroyd says Microsoft has not decided how much of the stack to include in the operating system. In addition to MPI, Microsoft is also looking at a job scheduler and a cluster manager among other technologies. "I don't have any comments on specific technologies that will or won't be in the product," Oldroyd says. "Clearly customers will have a choice in how they configure and deploy."

Oldroyd contends that Microsoft's corporate customers are approaching the company about what Microsoft can do for them in high performance computing. "The advantage that we think that we'll have with our HPC Edition, is taking the value proposition of Windows into that commercial market, where we've always been about ease of deployment, ease of use and ease of management."

With a second half 2005 delivery date, many platform decisions have yet to be made and will depend on market dynamics and Microsoft's progress with internal product roadmaps over the next year. Oldroyd said Microsoft is not ready to talk about whether the HPC Edition will be based on Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 or Windows Server 2003 R2. He also said Microsoft is not ready to discuss whether the HPC Edition will be offered as a 32-bit product, an Itanium 64-bit product, a 64-bit Extended Systems product or some combination of the three.

The HPC Edition adds to a crowded list of Windows Server 2003 SKUs that already numbers 13. Depending on how many flavors of the HPC Edition Microsoft delivers, it will have anywhere from 14 to 17 or more SKUs of Windows Server 2003 by the end of next year. That's not counting the 2005 "R2" refresh of Windows Server 2003, which will have an unknown effect on the number of versions of Windows Server on the market.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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