Times are changing. Microsoft’s Windows operating system, which was originally designed for desktop PCs, is being retooled to support supercomputer applications. With the hope of becoming a key player in that space, Microsoft has poured millions of dollars into its Windows Super Computer Cluster, which is slated to become available later this year. “Microsoft has made a few unsuccessful attempts to become a key player in the supercomputer market but the company could be in a better position for success this time,” said Gordon Haff, an analyst for market research firm Illuminata.
A couple of factors are behind the market shift. Supercomputing has been a market segment relegated to niche applications running on specialized costly hardware, but that description has been changing recently. Clustering technology has become quite popular among supercomputer users. This approach enables users to tie together dozens, or hundreds, of inexpensive PC servers with special cabling and software that distributes work among the processors. This technique has enabled universities, supercomputing research centers, and corporate IT departments to access supercomputing processing power at much lower costs than in the past.
That is one reason why the supercomputing market has been growing. Market research firm International Data Corp. (IDC) has seen double digit growth in the past two years, with worldwide sales tallying more than US$7 billion.
Linux: A Growing Force
The Linux operating system has reaped the most benefits from that interest. “In the last four to five years, Linux has been able to go from a miniscule market share to about half of all system sales in the high performance computing market,” stated Addison Snell, Research Director, High Performance Computing at IDC.
Microsoft would like to loosen Linux’s stronghold on the supercomputer market segment. The company, which unveiled its latest plans in June 2004, has taken both tactical and practical approaches to propping up Windows sales in that market.
On the tactical front, the company has focused on addressing areas where most current supercomputer systems are weak. Diagnostic tools represent one set of products where vendor offerings fall short of user demands. Since companies want to be able to optimize their processing resources, Microsoft has been designing new graphical management tools that could help IT departments more easily program their clusters. Also, the company wants to improve these computers’ power management through use of the IPMI (Intelligent Platform Management Interface), which is designed to enable companies to reboot clusters without having to power the system down.
Application development has been another weak spot in the supercomputer market. Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) want to be able to migrate their code from system to system. To date, most applications have been custom designed for specific supercomputers and difficult — some would say impossible — to move.
“Microsoft has built its business on working with third party software vendors and wants to leverage that expertise to the supercomputing arena,” Illuminata’s Haff told TechNewsWorld. Already, Microsoft has worked with third parties to develop applications, such as a car crash simulation guide and a weather modeling guide, that run on Windows Super Computer Cluster.
Knowing Its Weakness
Microsoft also seems to understand its weak position in the market. “The decision to use Linux or Windows is often more political than technical,” noted George Weiss, an industry analyst with Gartner Group Inc. “While Windows has as many technical capabilities as Linux, users feel much more comfortable working with the latter rather than the former.”
In response, Microsoft has been trying to curry favor among influential entities and individuals in the supercomputer space. The company provided funding to 10 universities in the United States, Europe, and Asia, such as Cornell University, Stuttgart University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the University of Tennessee, and the University of Virginia. These schools are helping Microsoft develop a set of high-performance computing products, such as middleware and application development tools.
Microsoft also hired Cray supercomputer developer Burton Smith to aid its high-performance-computing effort. A founder of Tera Computer, which had acquired Cray Research in 2000, Smith had been serving as Cray’s chief scientist and helped design the multi-threaded architecture technology now found in many supercomputers.
While supercomputing has traditionally been linked to academic and research markets, the commercial market may offer Microsoft more help. “A number of companies are starting to look at supercomputing for various data analysis applications,” Illuminata’s Haff told TechNewsWorld. Procter & Gamble Co. uses supercomputers to design packages for Folgers coffee, Pringles potato chips, and Pampers diapers. Rolls-Royce relies on high-end computers to track data from sensors installed on aircraft engines, then analyzes it to predict if faults might arise.
If Microsoft is able to become a force in the supercomputer market segment, which vendors will be impacted? “Most of the hardware suppliers sell Linux and Windows systems, so they really do not care which one a customer uses,” Gartner Group’s Weiss told TechNewsWorld. “Dell began pushing Linux most recently, so it might have the most to gain.”
Movement to Windows would also put more pressure on proprietary versions of Unix. Sun Microsystems has been the leading supplier in that space and would seem to stand to lose market share and revenue.
Microsoft’s impact on the supercomputer market will become evident in the long term rather than the short term. Supercomputer application development and deployment is a complex process, one that typically spans years. “We won’t really know how much market share Microsoft will be able to capture for another two to three years,” concluded IDC’s Snell.