Is Microsoft secretly preparing for a new computing scenario where a reborn mainframe emerges that supports multi-user computing on centralized desktops?
Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Helm believes so, pointing out that two of Microsoft’s most recent acquisitions-Calista Technologies and Kidaro-have been companies whose technologies could facilitate multi-user computing on centralized desktops.
Helm was responding to a Reuters report published March 13 quoting Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, Craig Mundie, as saying that he believes parallel computing is the next big thing in technology.
But individual parallel applications might be the wrong way to exploit parallel processors, Helm said, noting that a better way to exploit parallelism could be to “go back to the future,” essentially sharing computers among multiple users.
“A reborn mainframe could spell the end of the PC market, so Microsoft and Intel aren’t going to talk about it out loud, but I think Microsoft, at least, is quietly preparing for the possibility,” Helm told eWeek.
Online services, another big future growth area for Microsoft and one of the reasons behind its drive to buy Yahoo, are also inherently multi-user systems. Such services will be able to exploit continued improvements in parallel computing. “Google, of course, has built its whole business on that observation,” helm said.
Mundie is not alone in this assesment, with Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems also saying that parallel processing would be the big driver for the data center.
A new programming language would be required for this new parallel computing scenario, and could affect how almost every piece of software was written. “This will be hard,” said Mundie, who worked on parallel computing as the head of supercomputer company Alliant Computer Systems before joining Microsoft. “This challenge looms large over the next 5 to 10 years,” he told Reuters.
But Helm says that while exploiting parallelism does require a fundamental shift for programmers, he does not believe that the tools and languages they are given today are up to the task.
“However, new tools and languages might not be sufficient either. For years, researchers have been experimenting with new programming technology to support parallel computing in scientific labs, but very little of it has made the jump to the mainstream,” he told eWeek.
Parallel computing was the next big challenge
Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, agrees that the task is daunting, noting that there are currently few things that make use of more than two cores, let alone the massively parallel systems that Intel and others have on the drawing board.
“The differences are so great that taking advantage of this may require a new generation of programmers trained from the start to approach the related problems differently,” he said.
But both analysts agreed that parallel computing was the next big challenge not only for Microsoft, but also for every company that depended on the PC market, given that Intel and AMD continued to speed up their processors by greater parallel processing rather than speeding up clock speeds.
“As a result, only applications that can run tasks in parallel benefit from the speedup, and that leaves out a lot of PC applications,” Helm said.
Enderle also questioned whether a “killer application” will bring this computing power to the forefront, as Mundie believes, just like what word processing and spreadsheets did for the PC and how e-mail and the Web browser popularized the Internet.
“The traditional -killer application’ might not be the answer here. A system that could showcase intelligence would be the equivalent of the killer application,” he said.
Mundie also acknowledged that pushing a company as big as Microsoft to look past historical strengths and traditional ways of doing things to focus on new technology was not an easy task.
But to Enderle, the solution lies in “skunk works efforts,” where some staff are taken off campus and allowed to work in relative isolation from the other corporate units so they are free of the conventional thinking and policies that make it almost impossible to create a truly new way of doing things.
“Every company is resistant to change and the larger the company, the more resistance you are likely to run into. Microsoft is really large,” he said.