Microsoft gains technical-computing toehold

Compute cluster product has some appeal to customers who need integration with regular Windows machines.

Microsoft is showing some early signs of success with a version of Windows geared for a technical computing market that Linux dominates today.

Windows Compute Cluster Server (CCS) runs on a group of interconnected computers that collectively tackle calculation chores. These high-performance computing clusters have swept the list of the top 500 supercomputers--but they typically run Linux, not Windows.

But when Microsoft released Windows CCS less than a year ago, the company tried to find a new niche in the market rather than go up against Linux directly. The software giant is trying to win over customers with small clusters, often integrated with the work customers are doing on their Windows PCs.

"We think that's fertile ground that nobody else has hoed yet."
--John Enck
Gartner analyst

"We think that's fertile ground that nobody else has hoed yet," said Gartner analyst John Enck. "We were pretty skeptical when they came to market with this, but they're doing much better than we anticipated."

Microsoft has had some successes moving from a market in which it's strong into an adjacent market where it's not. For example, Microsoft moved from operating system software to desktop software, and from Windows on PCs to Windows on servers.

Lateral move
That's exactly what happened in the case of the South Florida Water Management District, which is using Windows CCS to power a modest-size five-server cluster that computes water flow to as part of a multibillion-dollar habitat restoration project in the Everglades National Park. The group also has a much larger Linux cluster, but the group also had Windows-based modeling tools that they moved easily to the cluster, said Akin Owosina, program manager for the district's Interagency Modeling Center.

Another reason the Windows cluster is appropriate is because outside stakeholders--everyone from the federal Fish and Wildlife Department to environmental activists--want to check model results and in some cases run those models themselves to verify the results, Owosina said.

"We want to be used by as many stakeholders and customers as we can. For many of them, the environment is Windows," Owosina said.

And for Saifur Rahman, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, using Linux would have required new expertise. His organization is running Windows CCS on a 16-server cluster for research in transportation and in cancer-related molecular modeling.

"We wanted to remain within the Windows environment so that we could use our existing applications and did not have to retrain our graduate students who have been working in this environment for several years with data from end users," Rahman said.

In particular, his students use the Matlab mathematical calculation and data-processing software on Windows. Matlab on the desktop can tap into Matlab on the cluster for heavy lifting.

Microsoft gives itself high marks for its results so far. "We acknowledge we have more work to do here, but we've made good progress in the first year," said Shawn Hansen, Microsoft's director of HPC (high-performance computing) marketing. "We've been very pleased with the results and the uptake."

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