Microsoft Windows HPC Server 2008 challenges Linux on low-end HPC

With Windows HPC Server 2008, Microsoft has set its sights on an emerging class of commercial high-performance computing (HPC) applications running on the x86 platform.

Microsoft has released Windows HPC Server 2008, the successor to Windows Compute Cluster Server (CCS) 2003. And with it, the company has set its sights on an emerging class of commercial high-performance computing (HPC) applications running on the x86 platform.

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Once the purview of defense contractors and academia, high-performance computing has been one of the highest-growth IT markets over the past five years, said Earl Joseph, HPC program vice president at IDC. And while most HPC applications run on Linux or Unix, Microsoft is betting on Windows playing a bigger role in HPC.

"Microsoft feels they need to fight the HPC fight -- even if Windows isn't the most natural fit -- because there's so much growth there," said Illuminata Inc. analyst Gordon Haff. "In addition, while it's certainly the case that Windows in academic and other "pure research" HPC is rare, there's also a lot of HPC these days in more conventional industrial settings. For example, modeling and simulation of product designs. And, here, Windows is a much more natural fit. In fact, Windows is quite common on engineering workstations."

Overcoming prior HPC constraints: Rival to Unix and Linux?
Built on Windows Server 2008, Windows HPC Server 2008 is more sophisticated. It is designed with integrated tools that support environments with hundreds and thousands of server nodes working in parallel on large computational workloads, like those used in engineering, weather modeling, finance, oil and gas and government applications.

"The federal government has used HPC systems for years for things like, well, building bombs," said Ryan Waite, product unit manager of Microsoft HPC.

New features of Windows HPC Server 2008 include high-speed Network Direct, Microsoft's new remote direct memory access interface, more efficient and scalable cluster management tools, a service-oriented architecture (SOA) job scheduler, and cluster interoperability through standards such as the High Performance Computing Basic Profile (HPCBP) specification produced by the Open Grid Forum.

Also, in addition to supporting standard interfaces such as OpenMP, multiprocessor interconnect and Web services, Window HPC Server 2008 supports third-party numerical library providers, performance optimizers, compilers and debugging toolkits.

James Staten, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said, "This is a solid improvement to their HPC offering that makes Windows an acceptable platform for a wider set of highly scalable applications. So if enterprise high-performance developers have been constrained by what they could do on Windows in the past, they should be able to overcome those constraints now."

Staten said some of the most impressive features of Windows HPC Server 2008 are clustering and scalability. "Cluster setup, install, management and scale are drastically better than the previous version, which has been a roadblock for many. The scalability of this new version of the OS is also noteworthy."

But Unix and Linux are the real dominant platforms in HPC, and Staten said he didn't expect to see Linux- or Unix-based HPC workloads migrate to Windows. Nor, however, was that the aim of this release. "Microsoft is looking to incrementally grow the HPC market by providing a more approachable, familiar platform for these types of applications that either already exist on Windows or are being built anew on this platform," Staten said.

Nevertheless, given Linux and Unix's prevalence in HPC, Microsoft did make Windows HPC Server 2008 interoperable with those and other OSes, according to Vince Mendillo, director of Microsoft HPC marketing. "We have great interoperability built into the product … apps written in Linux code can be compiled for and run on Windows HPC Server" through Windows Services for Unix.

Windows HPC Server into the mainstream: Partnerships and pricing
Meanwhile, Microsoft is working with an array of industry partners, including standard x86 server and processor vendors to help push Windows HPC Server 2008 further into the mainstream, said Mendillo.

"Momentum around the partner ecosystem is growing rapidly, and IBM, HP and a host of other vendors are on board supporting this OS on their standard x86 servers," Mendillo said. "The fact that we have support from common mainstream processors - Intel and AMD - allows economies of scale."

Last week, Microsoft announced a partnership with supercomputer vendor Cray to introduce a new compact supercomputer, the Cray CX1, that will run Windows HPC Server 2008 and have a starting price of $25,000.

At the International Supercomputing Conference Earlier this year, Microsoft showcased its beta version of the new OS running on National Center for Supercomputing Applications' Abe, a supercomputer running a combination of Windows HPC Server 2008 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 on a cluster of commodity Dell PowerEdge 1955 servers. The supercomputer ranked No. 23 on the top 500 largest supercomputers at 68.5 teraflops on 9,472 cores.

Windows HPC Server 2008 evaluation copies are now available for download. Pricing for Windows HPC Server 2008 will be $475 (U.S.) per compute node.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

Also, check out our data center blogs: Server Farming, Mainframe Propellerhead, and Data Center Facilities Pro.

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