Microsoft Renews Low-Cost Supercomputing Pitch

Six months after shipping the first beta of its Windows High-Performance Computing (HPC) Server 2008, Microsoft on Saturday said it is shipping Beta 2, adding several new features and continuing its push for better position in the supercomputing sector.

“With Beta 2 we provide a highly available head node that integrates deployment, management, monitoring, and diagnostics in a new user interface based on System Center’s [Microsoft’s systems management tools] user interface framework,” wrote Ryan Waite, group program manager for Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) HPC, in a blog post on the Windows Server Division Weblog.

In addition, Beta 2 adds support for larger groups of computers.

The latest beta continues Microsoft’s five-year-plus campaign to make critics and customers of its HPC technologies sit up and take serious note of Windows Server’s potential in the field.

At the heart of Microsoft’s positioning is the idea of Windows Server as a low-cost approach to what’s sometimes referred to as the supercomputing space.

To date, however, the company has had a hard slog to make inroads into a marketplace where established players like IBM, SGI, HP and Cray have long been entrenched.

Indeed, Microsoft has made a meager showing on lists like the Top500 supercomputing sites to date — a list that is dominated primarily by Unix and Linux systems. The question, though, is how important are such lists of high-end implementations to real-world customers with less-than-high-end budgets?

As with its server software in general, Microsoft’s pitch has been that Windows HPC doesn’t require the budget of a Fortune 100 company or a major government agency in order to implement supercomputing environments.

That commodity approach to one of computing’s holy grails seems to be starting to win converts, one analyst said.

“I don’t think [the Top500 list] is enormously significant [because] the falling cost of the hardware is creating an opportunity for Microsoft,” Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told

While free offerings like Linux are a strong motivator for companies interested in implementing HPC solutions, Microsoft has something of an advantage in providing a familiar Windows user interface, he said.

“Microsoft could really potentially make a big impact by increasing the prevalence of HPC in mid-market companies,” King added.

Since Beta 1 shipped in November, Microsoft has done test runs on clusters of up to 1,000 nodes, and also fixed more than 1,000 bugs. Beta 2 will go out to Microsoft’s Technology Adoption Partners (TAP) who will test it in production environments, according to Waite’s post.

Other additions in Beta 2, according to Microsoft, include the ability to submit jobs from within users’ applications, lower communications latency between compute nodes, and better scalability for system-oriented architecture (SOA) workloads.

Windows HPC Server 2008 is currently scheduled for general availability in the second half of the year.

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