Microsoft Inc.’s forays into high-performance computing (HPC), with its roll out of Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003 earlier this month, is unlikely to affect Linux’s pre-eminence in this space, a Canadian analyst says.
“Linux and UNIX are much too established [as HPC platforms],” said Darin Stahl, research lead for the server industry at consultancy firm Info-Tech Research Group Inc. in London Ont., adding that Microsoft’s entry is not going to change that.
However, he said Redmond’s new product will make HPC more accessible to smaller companies, enabling them to benefit from grids and clustering.
Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003 (WSCCS03) is Microsoft’s first software product designed to run parallel, high-performance computing (HPC) applications. The software sits on a Server 2003 code base and it is simpler to deploy, operate and integrate with existing tools, according to Microsoft. The launch follows the release last year of Windows Server 2003 x64 Edition.
Rather than take on supercomputing heavyweights in the enterprise arena, with the launch of WCCS03, Microsoft is casting its net lower and wider.
“Our goal is to make supercomputing (SC) mainstream,” said Hilary Wittmann, the Windows Server product manager for Canada.
Wittmann said Linux and UNIX take up at least 98 per cent of the SC market in North America with high-end systems primarily deployed by large scale companies.
In Canada, there are some 75 companies using supercomputing. “Microsoft intends to double that number by offering a cheaper product to smaller organizations.”
The software is priced at US$456 per node. The product comes with a full operating system with cluster interfaces and is capable of 64-bit computing. It is interoperable with Linux and UNIX in case users want to operate in a mixed environment.
Wittmann said the average HPC-enabled Canadian company deploys 80 to 250 nodes in a cluster.
A computer cluster is a group of computers that work together. Clusters are usually deployed to improve speed and reliability, and to do that more cost effectively than a single computer with comparable power.
High-performance clusters provide improve operations by splitting a computational task across many different nodes or computers in the cluster.
According to Wittmann, WSCCS03 is ideal for companies requiring massive computing power such as firms in the aerospace, life sciences, geo-sciences, automotive and financial service markets.
She said a key advantage is the ease of use since the software interacts well with other Windows OS that are widely used in various industries.
Ron Elber, professor at the Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. said the Microsoft product not only shortened computing time for operators but also allowed biologist to access applications without prior knowledge of cluster computing. “From our perspective, large-scale Linux clusters are difficult to set up and fine tune. They are less friendly for the average user who is not computer oriented.”
“A Windows-based HPC cluster integrates much better and it’s easier to develop software with,” said Elber.
This view is echoed by Matt Wortman, director of computational biology and information technology at the Genome Research Institute of the University of Cincinnati.
He said the Institute realized savings by reducing the complexity of its infrastructure. “Our Windows technicians could apply their knowledge of Windows-based servers to set up clusters, even without HPC experience without supervision or guidance.”
Part of Microsoft’s strategy to gain user acceptance is to offer out-of-the-box features to simplify operation.
When running an application across different nodes, a job scheduler tool is needed to plan the load out.
Operators also need a messaging passing interface (MPI), when working with clusters. Clusters require a head node computer that relays commands to the rest of the nodes. The MPI enables the head node to communicate with other computers.
“In the past these features were either developed in-house or bought separately by HPC users,” said Wortman. “We save users money and time by offering these features straight out of the box.”
Stahl said this added to the systems interoperability with other Windows products add value to the software by reducing the cost of training.
“Compute Cluster is a halo product for Microsoft. Something that fits very well into their product line,” said Stahl