Microsoft Takes High Performance Computing Mainstream

At the High Performance on Wall Street conference, Microsoft's high performance computing honcho, Bill Laing announced Windows HPC Server 2008. Microsoft's goal is to take HPC mainstream and make Windows an alternative to Linux and Unix for HPC customers, particularly in the financial sector.

NEW YORK - Underscoring the importance of the financial sector in the push to take high performance computing mainstream, Microsoft announced the release to manufacturing of its latest entry into the HPC arena, Microsoft Windows HPC Server 2008, at the High Performance on Wall Street conference here.

"Today we're announcing the availability of Windows HPC Server 2008 and you can download an evaluation copy today," said Bill Laing, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Windows Server and Solutions Division, during his keynote address at the High Performance on Wall Street event here on Sept. 22.

Laing, who leads Microsoft's drive to take HPC mainstream, said the Windows HPC Server 2008 technology was "not built by engineers just sitting in Redmond, but we went out to customers and spent time finding out what they needed. There were more than 3,000 downloads of the beta and we worked with more than 60 ISVs" to get the product out.

As Ryan Waite, Microsoft's product unit manager for HPC said in a blog post:

""The HPC industry uses mostly Linux or UNIX servers. To even suggest Windows could be successful in HPC is blasphemy. To build our second release we went to customers, especially customers who didn't use Windows. We conducted over 100 customer visits. We did internships, where we would work on-site with HPC admins and developers. We created a customer advisory board with leading HPC experts from computational finance, engineering, government, academia and the life sciences and they were brutally honest with their feedback. We assisted several ISVs with their ports to Windows and conducted five separate weeklong performance deep-dives with ISVs where we not only helped port, analyze and tune their codes but we helped with improving concurrency in general. In the process we ate a lot of humble pie while learning how people really use their HPC servers: job schedulers, deployment tools, cluster administration tools, compilers, debuggers and MPI stacks.""

Laing said Microsoft worked with a core group of Microsoft customers in honing the Windows HPC Server 2008 technology, including Boeing, the Ferrari Formula 1 team and Proctor & Gamble.

Microsoft had three primary drivers behind the delivery of its new HPC offering: to deliver a better programming experience for HPC, to deliver a better administrative experience and to deliver higher performance in the HPC space, Laing said.

Kyril Faenov, general manager of the HPC team at Microsoft, said Windows HPC Server 2008 makes it easier to take computations from the desktop and move them to a cluster. The product also features automatic diagnostics suites that test latency, a comprehensive console that allows users to look at all nodes and built-in reporting. "All record information and usage information of the clients is recorded in a database" and made available for reporting, Faenov said.

Meanwhile, in addition to the core group of customer organizations that helped Microsoft hone the product, Microsoft also helped some early adopters take advantage of the technology for ongoing work.

Ricky Higgins, IT director in the products and markets group at Lloyds TSB Corporate Markets, said his organization was in the midst of an upgrade of its IT infrastructure and Microsoft was able to help them seamlessly migrate their systems ahead of schedule with the Microsoft HPC platform. "HPC was a natural progression for us," Higgins said, noting that the Microsoft HPC offering is similar to other products the company uses. "There was minimal disruption because there were few training and usability issues," since Lloyds TSB users were familiar with the Microsoft technology.

"Microsoft believes HPC means more than high performance computing; it also means high-productivity computing," Laing said, noting that he has been working on operating systems for 35 years and decided to come to Microsoft nine years ago to "bring high-end features into the mainstream. And I believe the financial sector is critical to helping to drive adoption of HPC into the mainstream."

As part of the Microsoft Dynamic IT initiative, the company is pushing application development and deployment processes that will focus on the use of models, Laing said. "We want to enable customers to be more agile and dynamic," he added.

Moreover, HPC also is a driver for parallel computing, Laing said. "We cannot keep increasing the clock speeds of processors, so software needs to use parallelism to support multiple cores, and we're working to make the use of parallel computing transparent to users. We're extending our parallel computing strategy from the desktop to servers to the cloud. And we're going to make it easy for developers by deeply investing in parallel development tools and languages."

Added Faenov: "We're making further investment to make parallel programming much easier, starting with F# and the Parallel Extensions to the .NET Framework." And Microsoft is enabling developers to build HPC applications with Visual Studio, he said.

"We're making supercomputer performance available to companies that might otherwise not be able to afford it," Laing said.

Traditionally, HPC has been separate from the mainstream computing environments, requiring specialized tools, talent, hardware and software, Laing said. "But we would like to see a single infrastructure where information workers access the HPC horsepower they need."

Laing noted that Microsoft teamed with Cray and Intel to deliver a "personal supercomputer" and that the company would be raffling one of the cabinet-size $25,000 machines off at its reception later in the day.

"Even the skeptics are taking notice of this announcement," Waite said. "All of our customer focus and performance work means we can create affordable, easy-to-use supercomputing solutions. This, in turn, means HPC can go further into the mainstream. Cray is a big believer in this model and the Cray CX1 fits under your desk. Whoa! Now, instead of waiting for hours to run your job on the big supercomputer you can run your models on the supercomputer in your office, saving the big jobs for the big cluster and running your regular jobs immediately."

Meanwhile, in a separate announcement at the HPC on Wall Street event, IBM announced it will offer remote $99 test drives of Microsoft's Windows HPC Server 2008 via IBM's network of Computing on Demand facilities.