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MS hardware vision extends to high end

Microsoft is floating a vision of high-end machines that may result next year in "clustering" servers that pack in as many as 16 processors and workstations equipped with an array of ultra-sophisticated technologies.

Not content with simply influencing the future of low-end consumer systems, Microsoft is now floating a vision of high-end machines that may result next year in "clustering" servers that pack in as many as 16 processors and workstations equipped with an array of new and ultra-sophisticated technologies.

The company has outlined its ideas in two white papers titled Server PC 97 and Workstation PC 97 currently making the rounds of Silicon Valley engineering circles. With Microsoft's influence on hardware design waxing quickly, the two papers may strongly influence both large and small systems vendors and provide a glimpse into the near-term future of high-end system design.

The Server PC 97 paper breaks the category into several sub-categories: file/print, departmental, branch office, enterprise, and host class servers. In Workstation PC 97, the company defines the workstation as a computer for users of "mission-critical networked applications, engineering or scientific applications, or media-authoring or software development tools." All of the servers would of course run Microsoft's Window NT operating system while the workstations would run either NT or Windows 95, the desktop OS.

One of the biggest innovations may be delivered in the area of high-end servers, where Microsoft's operating systems have the most ground to gain. Microsoft's idea of a cutting-edge host class server will be based on clustering technology that supports up to 16 processors.

"Clustered" systems are composed of two or more server machines that are configured to act as a single, more powerful multiprocessor system. Clustering is a critical technology for increasing server performance because it allows vendors to construct multiprocessor systems out of relatively low-cost building blocks; instead of building one system that incorporates a large number of microprocessors, a solution more technically elaborate and much more expensive.

Compaq Computer, the world's largest PC server vendor, is already on board with Microsoft's definition of clustering. Compaq now ships designs that support clustering of two servers: a four-processor Compaq Proliant server can be clustered with another identical machine. The company plans to enhance this design later this year to support clusters of more than two servers, said a Compaq spokesperson. This could mean that clustering designs would support up to 16 processors--which is what Microsoft is proposing--instead of the current eight.

On the workstation front, Microsoft wants to make these powerful desktops easier to use by popularizing technologies that it has already started promoting for its Simply Interactive PC (SIPC) design. For example, Microsoft envisions systems that immediately and automatically recognize and enable add-on devices using Universal Serial Bus (USB), the 1394 connectivity standard for daisy-chaining external add-on devices, and new "device bay" technologies for adding internal devices like hard disk drives and batteries.

PC 97 workstations would run either Windows 95 or Windows NT operating systems, but Microsoft's "requirements" are optimized to support the Windows NT Workstation. This is done partly so that hardware in the workstations can take advantage of the OpenGL graphics technology built into the NT operating system, the company said.

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