Microsoft gets on the grid

Once quiet on computing grids, the software giant is upping its commitment to high-performance computing and grid industry standards.

Looking to blunt the success of Linux in high-performance computing, Microsoft is ramping up its commitment to make Windows a better fit for data-intensive computing grids.

Microsoft is creating a "Cluster Compute" version of Windows and intends to work more closely with grid industry standards bodies, Tony Hey, the company's corporate vice president of technical computing, said in an interview with CNET on Tuesday.

Grid computing is a vague term that describes ways to make several machines work together to efficiently tackle computing jobs. The reason to use grids is to get more bang for the buck--by letting multiple applications share formerly separate resources or by automatically juggling priorities.

Microsoft's competitors, such as

Yet despite the growing interest in grids, Microsoft has been largely quiet on the topic apart from internal

Hey, who joined Microsoft in June after heading up the U.K.'s e-Science research initiative, said that Microsoft intends to focus its development efforts on so-called data grids, rather than compute grids, as many companies and standards bodies are doing.

Data, or information-centric, grids are designed to let people access information from disparate sources and then combine that data as part of a computing job.

For example, a hospital could view X-ray information from its own imaging system and simultaneously access relevant patient data from different locations. Or a financial services company could do data mining analysis on multiple databases without having to send large amounts of information across the network.

"Federating data--that's the big payoff. Aggregating compute cycles to me is the easy piece," Hey said. "You won't want to move petabytes of data around. You can move (server) clusters to the data."

Microsoft is focusing on sharing information--rather than computing power--through grids because that reflects what the academic and research communities are wrangling with, Hey said. For example, researchers could cull data from sensors with satellite data when predicting weather.

He said many of the grid technologies used in academia can be applied to business applications. Hey spoke at the GridWorld conference in Boston on Tuesday.

The hiring of Hey and Microsoft's investments in high-performance computing versions of Windows are signs that the company is taking the grid software market seriously, said Songnian Zhou, chief executive and founder of grid software company Platform Computing.

"The reality is they don't want Linux to take over the world in high-performance computing," Zhou said. "Tony (Hey) is serious about being a good citizen in the grid community, where they haven't been an active participant."

But Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice was skeptical that Microsoft would embrace open standards to the degree that other vendors do.

"Tony's endorsement of open standards is quite interesting and I think significant, but I don't think it's a statement you can trust. It's open as far as open benefits Microsoft," Eunice said.

Eunice said a good first step to showing its commitment to standards would be creating a good implementation of the Globus Toolkit (standards-based software for building applications that can run a grid of several machines) on Windows, something the company has not committed to doing.

Incredible outlier
Microsoft's main product in the grid computing area is Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition, which aims to be a more viable alternative to Linux. At the company's Professional Developers Conference in September, Microsoft released a beta version of Windows Compute Cluster Solution, which is tuned for 64-bit processors and includes a job scheduler.

In another indication of the company's commitment to high performance, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates in November will deliver the keynote speech at the SC/05 supercomputing conference in Seattle, which is

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