Microsoft gains technical-computing toehold

Compute cluster product has some appeal to customers who need integration with regular Windows machines.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor
Microsoft is showing some early signs of success with a version of Windows geared for a technical computing market that Linux dominates today.

Windows Compute Cluster Server (CCS) runs on a group of interconnected computers that collectively tackle calculation chores. These high-performance computing clusters have swept the list of the top 500 supercomputers--but they typically run Linux, not Windows.

But when Microsoft released Windows CCS less than a year ago, the company tried to find a new niche in the market rather than go up against Linux directly. The software giant is trying to win over customers with small clusters, often integrated with the work customers are doing on their Windows PCs.

"We think that's fertile ground that nobody else has hoed yet."
--John Enck
Gartner analyst

"We think that's fertile ground that nobody else has hoed yet," said Gartner analyst John Enck. "We were pretty skeptical when they came to market with this, but they're doing much better than we anticipated."

Microsoft has had some successes moving from a market in which it's strong into an adjacent market where it's not. For example, Microsoft moved from operating system software to desktop software, and from Windows on PCs to Windows on servers.

Lateral move
That's exactly what happened in the case of the South Florida Water Management District, which is using Windows CCS to power a modest-size five-server cluster that computes water flow to as part of a multibillion-dollar habitat restoration project in the Everglades National Park. The group also has a much larger Linux cluster, but the group also had Windows-based modeling tools that they moved easily to the cluster, said Akin Owosina, program manager for the district's Interagency Modeling Center.

Another reason the Windows cluster is appropriate is because outside stakeholders--everyone from the federal Fish and Wildlife Department to environmental activists--want to check model results and in some cases run those models themselves to verify the results, Owosina said.

"We want to be used by as many stakeholders and customers as we can. For many of them, the environment is Windows," Owosina said.

And for Saifur Rahman, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, using Linux would have required new expertise. His organization is running Windows CCS on a 16-server cluster for research in transportation and in cancer-related molecular modeling.

"We wanted to remain within the Windows environment so that we could use our existing applications and did not have to retrain our graduate students who have been working in this environment for several years with data from end users," Rahman said.

In particular, his students use the Matlab mathematical calculation and data-processing software on Windows. Matlab on the desktop can tap into Matlab on the cluster for heavy lifting.

Microsoft gives itself high marks for its results so far. "We acknowledge we have more work to do here, but we've made good progress in the first year," said Shawn Hansen, Microsoft's director of HPC (high-performance computing) marketing. "We've been very pleased with the results and the uptake."

But when it comes to the Linux-dominated cluster market, though, familiarity with Microsoft can be a burden as well as an asset.

For example, SGI, a high-performance computing specialist with ties to Linux, got a frosty reception on a compute cluster mailing list when it announced support for Windows CCS earlier this year.

"I don't hate Microsoft," said Robert Brown, a professor and compute cluster expert in Duke University's physics department, in a posting to the mailing list. "If anything, I fear it...Microsoft is for all practical purposes completely unregulated, it faces no serious competition, it routinely engages in business practices that make it very difficult for serious competition to ever arise, and it extends all over the world, not just in the United States."

When it comes to HPC, Windows is not the incumbent. "The HPC community has been Unix- and Linux-based for decades," said Gartner analyst Carl Claunch. "The university environments in which most have trained are heavily Linux-centric. The domination of Linux in HPC and in clusters is quite strong."

Among technical advantages of Linux clusters is better maturity, better software choices, broader abilities and a proven ability to run at large scale, Claunch said.

New features
Windows CCS isn't Microsoft's last crack at the market, though. It just released Service Pack 1, which is based on Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2. That new version makes it possible to bring up a cluster in one fell swoop rather than installing software on each machine individually.

More significant changes will come with CCS version 2, Hansen said, which will be based on the "Longhorn Server" successor to Windows Server 2003. Longhorn Server is due to ship this year, but Hansen declined to say when the CCS revamp will emerge.

Version 2 will feature "simplified development, deployment, operation and integration," Hansen said. Specific improvements will help networking--in particular TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) software and support for larger networks, he said.

For development, Microsoft touts its Visual Studio programming tools. Version 2 will feature better support for software that executes in parallel on a number of machines, he said. Building that parallelism into software is a decades-old challenge in the computer industry.

Microsoft also has struck partnerships with IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and SGI to make it easier for customers to purchase clusters with software already set up. SGI likes having Windows CCS as an option for customers working on animation, for example. "There are a lot of shops that run a lot of Windows applications," and they can use a Windows cluster to speed up work, said Louise Ledeen, a manager for digital content management marketing at SGI.

And even in a market with cultural barriers, pragmatism can win the day. That was the case for Matt Wortman, director of computational biology and information technology at the University of Cincinnati's Genome Research Institute. His group already has Linux clusters, but picked Windows CCS for a 14-node cluster that runs simulation software to analyze drugs' molecular behavior. It integrated easily with researchers' computers, 95 percent of which run Windows, he said.

"I don't care if it's Microsoft or Scyld, (Linux cluster software from Penguin Computing)," Wortman said. "I want to make it easier for the average biologist to find new drugs."

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