Gates foray in high-end computing

Updated: Nov 19 2005, 05:30am hrs
In January a group of Microsoft researchers set out to discover how much computing power they could buy for less than $4,000 at a standard online retailer.

They found the answer at NewEgg.com, where they were able to purchase for just $3,632 9.5 gigaflops of computing speed. That is the amount of computing power offered by a Cray Y-MP supercomputer in 1991 at a cost of $40 million.

The plunging cost of computing power is both an opportunity and a challenge to Microsoft, which unveiled its first entry into the market for high-performance scientific and technical computing.

The companys Windows Computer Cluster Server 2003 software is scheduled to become available in the first half of next year and is intended to give scientists and engineers a simple way to gain high-performance computing from their existing Microsoft desktop computers.

The high-performance market is growing faster than the rest of the server market, according to the International Data Corp. Last year, the percentage of high-performance servers grew from 7% to 10% of the X86 computer server market.

The new Microsoft software is meant for systems with up to 64 processors, but can be extended to much larger machines as well, if they are linked internally on high-speed data networking connections, the company said.

Our focus is not on the very highest-end systems but on divisional and departmental computing systems, said Kyril Faenov, Microsofts director of high-performance computing.

The entry is significant, because until now Microsoft has largely been excluded from the high-performance market, which is dominated by Linux and Unix software.

Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., will also announce that it is planning to provide international support for 10 supercomputing institutes around the world, including Cornell University, the University of Utah, University of Stuttgart and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

We think the big deal here is to give a lot more people access to a level of computation that was not available before, said Craig Mundie, a senior vice president at Microsoft and one of the companys three chief technology officers.

Microsoft is hoping to leverage its monopoly position in desktop computing by offering scientists and engineers a single computing environment with the thousands of applications now available for desktop and server operating systems.

The low end of the technical computing market is, however, already highly competitive with software systems, many of them available as inexpensive open-source software programs. For example, the Linux Rocks program has been developed for more than a decade by a small group of engineers led by Philip M Papadopoulos, program director of grid and cluster computing at the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

That program, which is freely available and is used by more than 500 academic and technical computing sites, can be installed on a 128-processor system in as little as eight minutes with the aid of BitTorrent file-sharing software.

To move into the scientific and technical computing world, Microsoft will have to overcome several obstacles, Papadopoulos said. Most users are Unix friendly, thats the environment they work in, he said. If Microsoft wants to move scientists and engineers into its software environment, it will have to demonstrate compatibility and prove that it offers an easier environment in which to do parallel programming, he said.

Microsoft executives said they were still refining pricing for the Computer Cluster Server software, but added that prices would be similar to those for the compays multi-processor server system.

Microsofts advantage will come in helping scientists manage the huge explosion of data generated by new sensor technology.

John Markoff / NY TIMES