[Beowulf] Redmond is at it, again
eugen at leitl.org
Tue May 25 06:44:15 PDT 2004
Yeah, think of all those power Excel hydro code users who're going to
Microsoft creating Windows for supercomputers
By Stephen Shankland and Ina Fried
May 24, 2004, 12:30 PM PT
Microsoft has launched an effort to produce a version of Windows for
high-performance computing, a move seen as a direct attack on a Linux
For now, Linux has the upper hand, owing to its affinity with Unix--the OS
environment the high-performance crowd is most comfortable with--and the
open-source model, which lets users turn directly to source code for answers
to problems. But a Microsoft product would theoretically integrate better
with Windows desktop machines, and if the company can serve up an impressive
offering, Linux could be in for a tussle.
High-performance computing once required massive, expensive, exotic machines
from companies such as Cray, but the field is being remade by the arrival of
clusters of low-end machines. While the trend could be considered an
opportunity for Microsoft, which has long been the leading operating-system
company, Linux has actually become the favored software used on these
Now Microsoft has begun its response, forming its High Performance Computing
team and planning a new OS version called Windows Server HPC Edition. Kyril
Faenov is director of the effort, and Microsoft is hiring new managers,
programmers, testers and others.
The Redmond, Wash.-based software colossus has its work cut out in the
market--and knows it.
"Winning in this important space against entrenched Linux/open-source
software competition requires creativity, innovation, speed of execution, and
deep engagements with hardware, software and academic partners," reads a job
posting for a program manager responsible for setting up the team's academic
In a recent interview, Bob Muglia, a Microsoft senior vice president who
leads the development of Windows Server, said the company is interested in
two particular areas: building high-performance computing clusters and
harvesting the unused processing power of PCs.
Although Microsoft is a comparative newcomer to the market, the company could
bring several advantages:
. Machines running Windows HPC Edition could seamlessly connect to desktop
computers, providing instant power for someone such as a financial analyst
performing calculations on an Excel spreadsheet, said David Lifka, chief
technology officer for the Cornell Theory Center, Microsoft's premier
high-performance computing partner.
. Microsoft could create a specialized version of its widely praised
programming tools, said Phil Papadopoulos, director of the grids and clusters
program at the San Diego Supercomputing Center. "Windows could make that much
easier with their integrated development environment. They have the manpower
to do that piece of the puzzle."
. Microsoft could also adapt its popular SQL Server database software to run
on high-performance systems. The company has already said the next major
version of SQL Server, code-named Yukon and due next year, will include
better support for very large databases and for running on clustered systems.
. And Microsoft could build software into its desktop version of Windows to
harness the power of PCs, letting companies get more value from their
computers. It's a technology that's applicable to tasks such as drug
discovery and microchip design.
The business imperative
The high-performance effort doesn't mark the first time Microsoft has tried
to head off Linux's progress. With Windows Server 2003, Microsoft released a
lower-priced Web server edition, as Linux was growing popular for use on the
machines that host Web sites.
"The Windows Server group is really focused on countering Linux," said Rob
Helm, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "They've identified specific
areas where Linux has the most traction."
The HPC Edition is also an example of a Microsoft strategy to increase
revenue by creating versions of Windows tailored for specific market
segments--for example, Windows for tablet PCs, digital TV recorders and
"Another way for them to keep Windows sales moving is to roll out more of
these editions," Helm said. "When you've got a product that you need to keep
moving, one way to do it is to segment it. You introduce Tarter Control
Windows Server and Sensitive Teeth Windows Server."
High-performance computing is a lucrative market, with sales that increased
14 percent to $5.3 billion in 2003, according to IDC. And "bright clusters,"
Linux servers that manufacturers know will be used in a cluster, had sales of
$384 million in the fourth quarter.
Beating the incumbent
But for once, Microsoft is the newcomer, and Linux is the incumbent. Linux
got its first foothold in academia and research labs, which already had
expertise and software for the functionally similar Unix operating system.
"The majority of people doing high-performance computing are a lot more
comfortable and efficient inside a Unix environment," a category that
includes Linux, the SDSC's Papadopoulos said. To convince people to invest
the time and money to switch, Microsoft will have to offer something much
better, he said.
Linux, boosted by low-cost servers using processors from Intel and Advanced
Micro Devices, now is used on prestigious machines. Thunder, a machine at the
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with 512 Linux servers running Red Hat
Enterprise Linux, can perform more than 19 trillion calculations per second,
second only to Japan's Earth Simulator.
Dozens of machines in a list of the 500 fastest supercomputers run Linux,
including five of the top 10. Only two on the list are identified as Windows
One reason Windows has been slow to catch on is that Unix and Linux were bred
to be administered remotely, a necessary feature for managing a cluster with
dozens or hundreds of computers.
In Windows, "the notion of remote computing is significantly more difficult
than in Unix," Papadopoulos said. "Because Windows was born out of the
desktop, (it is) deeply ingrained in the Microsoft culture that you have
somebody sitting in front of the machine to do work."
Management is on Microsoft's agenda, though. The company is hiring one
programmer to work on a "graphical and script-based user interface for
efficient job and resource management across large clusters" and another to
create "automated infrastructure to uncover performance and reliability
problems with high performance, large-scale server applications."
Linux adds another advantage: It's open-source software, meaning that anybody
may see and modify its underlying source code. Most business customers aren't
interested, but high-performance technical computing users need to extract
every bit of performance and track down difficult bugs.
"The nice thing is that because everything is open, if you have a problem,
you can get at the root of the problem in terms of the software. That moves
things along quite a bit faster," Papadopoulos said.
That openness also makes it easier to accommodate the multitude of different
technologies used in the high-performance market but not necessarily in the
mainstream computing market, said Brian Stevens, vice president of operating
system development for Linux seller Red Hat.
Releasing a product
Microsoft declined to share schedule information about the HPC Edition, but
work is already under way.
For example, a software developer kit for HPC Edition will include support
for the Message Passing Interface, or MPI, widely used software to let
computers in a cluster communicate with one another.
The Cornell Theory Center's Lifka believes that an early software development
kit for the HPC Edition could arrive as soon as this fall. The center is
helping Microsoft develop and test the new software.
Microsoft has several upcoming server releases, to which an HPC version of
Windows could be added. Service Pack 1 of Windows Server 2003 is due later
this year, followed by a more substantive upgrade, code-named R2, slated for
2005. The next major update to Windows, code-named Longhorn, is scheduled to
arrive in server form in 2007.
According to job postings, Microsoft is adapting MPI to Microsoft's .Net
infrastructure. A key foundation of .Net is the C# programming language and
the Common Language Runtime, or CLR, which lets C# programs run on a
multitude of different systems.
Lifka said the first phase will use a version of MPI written for a specific
operating system and hardware type. The next foundation will be a version of
MPI for the CLR that will let administrators run the same programs on a wide
variety of different Windows machines--for example, those using Xeon, Opteron
or Itanium processors.
So far, programs written for the CLR and .Net aren't as fast as those written
for a specific machine, "but we see constant improvement in that," Lifka
added. Another area that needs work is security and easy patch installation,
Overall, Lifka is a fan of Windows for high-performance computing. The
biggest reason for his enthusiasm is that it can dovetail easily with other
versions of Windows in a company.
And companies are more familiar with Windows than Linux, he added. "Moving to
Windows has allowed us to have a greater number and quality of corporate
relationships," Lifka said.
Microsoft takes a long-term view of the challenge.
Muglia often discusses technology moving from possible to practical to
seamless, as it matures. High-performance computing on Windows today is in
the possible stage, he said, but the goal is to make it practical.
"That is something that will happen in the next few years," Muglia said.
"There is an opportunity to make this better."
Eugen* Leitl <a href="http://leitl.org">leitl</a>
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