HPC not for the masses, yet

Microsoft is targeting high-performance computing to go mainstream, but an analyst doesn't think this is happening anytime soon.

If vendors such as Microsoft have their way, HPC (high-performance computing) will become a common deployment in data centers. But, some industry observers express doubts that this will indeed happen in the near future.

Deepak Setty, Microsoft's Asia-Pacific regional manager for HPC, said: "While Asia is still some three to five years behind U.S. deployments, it is fast catching up because many emerging economies are skipping mainframe deployments and going straight to clusters."

Microsoft is on a drive to bring HPC to the mainstream market, one which it defines to encompass regular office users.

However, Robert Triendl, research director at Springboard, said HPC will remain a niche market for now. "While Microsoft is [initiating] a lot more aggressive marketing campaigns, HPC deployment won't dramatically become widespread overnight," Triendl said, in a phone interview.

One of the barriers to widescale deployment is that HPC today remains mainly a Linux gameplay, he said. "HPC is almost exclusively a Linux market," Triendl explained. "You have systems administrators who are skilled and experienced in Linux, so why should they switch to Microsoft?"

Furthermore, while companies may be attracted to the potential cost benefits from deploying HPC on a Windows platform, Triendl noted that he has yet to see significant intent for these businesses to do so.

According to the Springboard analyst, the hottest HPC market for Asia remains in the oil and gas industry, where clusters of some 2,000 to 4,000 servers are deployed to process large calculations.

Microsoft, however, has its eye on Asia's emerging games markets such as Korea. Shawn Hansen, Microsoft's director of marketing for Windows Server and tools, said in an interview: "The Asian games market is huge. Over 70 percent of Internet bandwidth in Korea is used by games.

"As a result, the industry is growing faster than you can hire engineers. So, the way companies increase efficiency is with compute power," Hansen said.

He added that almost 100 percent of the design process in the car manufacturing industry in Japan and Korea, are done by simulation. This poses a growing need for computing power in these industries, he said.

According to Hansen, animation and graphics programs also require complex calculations that can be time-consuming. HPC or systems with stronger computing prowess will quicken the production of games or animated movies. "Every compute cycle is tied to dollars and cents," he said, noting that Asia "has been fastest adopter we've seen".

Elaborating on why more Asian markets are bypassing mainframe deployments, Hansen explained that clusters in the past were "highly technical". Only systems administrators were able to reassign computing power to where it is most needed at that time, he noted.

With a dashboard function, he said, Microsoft is hoping to bring some level of control to end-users and allowing them to more easily tap on "unused" power from an HPC cluster.

Bringing power to the masses
And why would a regular user need so much power? According to Hansen, Microsoft sees a growing pool of users in the financial sector who typically have Excel spreadsheets large enough to take 10 minutes or more to process.

Bringing extra power to these users drives competitive advantage, an area that CIOs cannot afford to overlook, he said.

However, Springboard's Triendl is skeptical that end-users should be given control of their company's HPC resources. "Right now, what Microsoft offers is a little in-between," he said. "It is more user-friendly, but if you encounter issues with managing the cluster, you will still have to go into the system, and that's really a job for the systems administrator."

"The question is, for whom is [Microsoft's HPC offering] interesting? Small organizations should show reasonable potential because they're looking for manageability and convenience," said Triendl. "What Microsoft should target is the smaller scale deployments of 16 CPUs."

Regardless, Microsoft remains optimistic about the HPC market. "There is a US$9 billion global market for HPC so it is no longer a niche market," said Hansen.

In April this year, IDC released figures indicating that the HPC industry is expanding at 9.1 percent annually and projected to reach US$15.5 billion in 2011.