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Microsoft wraps up code for 'supercomputer' Windows

Company's Compute Cluster Server is to bring Windows closer to the world of supercomputing.

Microsoft has taken another step in its effort to bring Windows in the world of supercomputing, having finished development of its computer cluster operating system.

The software maker said Friday that it has finalized the code for Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003, which is designed to allow multiple servers to work together to handle high-performance computing (HPC) tasks. Such work, long handled by systems from SGI and Cray, has increasingly been tackled by Linux clusters, though Microsoft has been planning its entry for some time.

CNET first reported in May 2004 that Microsoft was developing such a version of Windows. A month later, the company confirmed its plans.

"This is a long-term investment for Microsoft," Kyril Faenov, director of High Performance Computing at Microsoft, said in a telephone interview. "We think we can make an impact."

The company had originally hoped to have the software ready last fall, but opted to spend more time testing the product. Now Microsoft says it is ready, noting that some early customers, including Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems and Cornell University's biology department are already using the software. Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM are among the computer makers that are planning to sell clusters using Microsoft's software.

Microsoft hopes that, though late to the cluster computing game, it can enter just as such tasks become more common and move beyond academic and research areas into large businesses.

"We think technical computing is an area that is undergoing a tremendous transition," Faenov said.

The Compute Cluster software--which is based on the Windows Server 2003 operating system, hence the somewhat outdated name--will be made available for evaluation next week. Customers, however, won't be able to buy the software until August, slightly behind the company's latest goal, which was to ship the software sometime in the first half of the year.

Basically, the company is hoping to do for the cluster market what it did in the server market. There, Microsoft bolstered Windows just in time to capitalize on the shift away from proprietary Unix servers, with the server unit having been a strong spot for the company's financial performance in recent years.

Microsoft is also pushing the idea of "personal supercomputing"--the idea that individual researchers, business analysts and engineers can benefit from harnessing the power of multiple computers. Hardware makers Ciara Technologies and Tyan Computer are among the companies aiming to sell such individual clusters.

The Compute Cluster software will sell for an estimated $469 per node, less than the company's standard server OS price. The cost of Windows Server varies based on the version of the operating system, but the standard edition with the ability to connect to five computers has a suggested price of $999.

"The price is less than standard Windows Server," Faenov said. "We got feedback that that is an attractive price."

The software is also among the first products from Microsoft that will run only on machines that have 64-bit processors, though it can still run 32-bit software. The next version of Exchange will also be 64-bit only, Microsoft has said.

Faenov said he is encouraged by the amount of HPC-related software already developed for Windows, including programs from MathWorks, Ansys and The BioTeam. Next, Faenov said he hopes to see Microsoft expand into the electronic design automation area, talking to folks like Mentor Graphics and Synopsys. He also sees the possibility for new areas, such as graphic design companies, to make clustered computing a part of their infrastructure.

"I would love to see media applications--Adobe Photoshop or InDesign--to be able to take advantage of clusters in every design shop out there," Faenov said.