Microsoft made its latest Windows HPC Server software available Monday, saying new features that integrate with Excel workbooks and harness the power of idle Windows 7 desktops will expand the reach of high-performance computing to smaller customers.
Supercomputing is generally the domain of universities, national labs and other large organizations, but Microsoft says it is aiming for "a broader set of customers" with the availability of Windows HPC Server 2008 R2.
Notable additions to the software include integration with Excel 2010, allowing calculation of complex spreadsheets. While calculating an Excel workbook with 1,700 records could take 14 hours on a desktop computer, doing so within a Windows HPC cluster would take less than three minutes, according to Microsoft.
Secondly, Windows HPC Server now lets customers expand the capacity of clusters by tapping into spare processor cycles on Windows 7 desktops. Offloading computational tasks to idle desktops is not a new strategy in the HPC market, but this is the first time such functionality is available on Windows HPC Server.
"A lot of companies have computational power that they're just not harnessing effectively," says Ryan Waite, a general manager for Microsoft's technical computing group.
The Windows HPC system is smart enough to stop utilizing a desktop if a user starts typing on it. But for now, the HPC system can't wake a computer out of sleep mode and add it to a cluster.
A separate research group at Microsoft is working on a sleep proxy system that maintains a PC's network presence even when it is turned off or put into standby node. This research is aimed at letting users or IT administrators access machines remotely even when they have been turned off, but could conceivably benefit future versions of Windows HPC Server.
"We've chatted with [the sleep proxy researchers] a little bit and are interested in seeing where we can go with that," Waite says.
Although Microsoft dominates the world of business software with desktop and server versions of Windows, the company is far from the first choice when it comes to building large high-performance computing systems. Microsoft achieved a milestone in 2008 by placing a Windows-based system at No. 10 in the list of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers. But Microsoft's highest position on that list has dropped to No. 24 and there are just three Windows-based systems in the top 100.
While Microsoft has said it anticipates more Top 500 runs with the latest release of Windows HPC Server, the bigger opportunity for Windows may be in organizations that are relatively new to supercomputing.
Microsoft argues that customers should use Windows HPC Server rather than Linux because the Windows HPC platform is interoperable with the widely used Microsoft products Active Directory, SharePoint, System Center and Office.
Earl Dodd, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Centers in Montana, says that familiarity with Microsoft products is a big selling point for customers just getting started in high-performance computing.
RMSC provides remote access to supercomputing capacity, and the new version of Windows HPC Server "is a critical piece of our strategy to go out to the small and medium-sized businesses," Dodd says.
RMSC works with both Linux and Windows-based clusters, but for small customers "we must begin where they are, and that is almost exclusively on a Windows environment," he says.
Integration with Excel is one of the most important features in Microsoft's Release 2, Dodd says. One RMSC customer that manages carbon credits for terrestrial sequestration needs to perform calculations on "something like 30 million rows" in Excel, according to Dodd.
"You couldn't load this thing in a workstation. Before R2 it just couldn't be done," Dodd says.
Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 was first released in beta in November 2009 and then a second beta was made available for download in April. About 130 users tested out the software, Waite says. With the software now in general availability, it will cost $475 per server for an express version and $925 per server for an enterprise version. The enterprise version includes Excel integration and the ability to harness spare processor cycles on Windows 7 desktops.
Forty Microsoft partners announced support for the Windows HPC platform in conjunction with Microsoft's announcement Monday. These announcements included a "personal supercomputer" offered by SGI and a desktop supercomputer built by Cray.