March 3, 2005 12:41 PM PST

Windows for supercomputers likely out by fall

SAN FRANCISCO-- Microsoft is aiming to have its first cluster version of Windows ready in time for a supercomputing conference this fall.

Software Architect Marvin Theimer said on Thursday that the company hopes to have a beta, or test version, by this summer, with the final version of Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition ready by the SC05 supercomputing conference in November.

The company has not announced final pricing for the operating system, but Theimer said the additional computers, or nodes, of a cluster will be priced at a discount.

"When you buy a cluster, the price per node in the cluster is going to be reduced" compared to regular Windows, Theimer said in a presentation at the Intel Developer Forum here. "We want to be competitive with something like Red Hat."

However, Theimer said the cluster version will include some restrictions on how the version can be used to prevent companies from performing standard Web hosting or other functions.

CNET News.com first reported Microsoft's plans to offer a tailored version of Windows last May. Microsoft confirmed its supercomputer plans last June.

The first version will reproduce many basic features of Linux clusters, Theimer said.

For example, it will include support for the Message Passing Interface, or MPI, the communication foundation of cluster software. And it will include programming tools for writing software that runs on clusters.

Theimer also outlined Microsoft's goals for two follow-up versions. The next version of the Compute Cluster edition will extend to Microsoft's .Net programming infrastructure, letting developers write software using the C# programming language, he said. Although such code runs more slowly than C programs running directly on Windows, writing programs in C# that run atop .Net is easier and more secure.

Often, Theimer said, it's more important to have a program as soon as possible than to have it running at peak performance, he said.

"Anything that improves my development time is worth the trouble," he said.

That version also will be able to manage "cycle harvesting" jobs that put otherwise-idle PCs to productive use, he said. Cycle harvesting--best exemplified by the SETI@Home project to scour radio telescope signals for extraterrestrial communication--only is useful for about 10 percent of high-performance technical computing tasks, he added.

A third version will include developer improvements to ease programming on clusters. It also will include high-level management tools and will help customers integrate their high-performance computing equipment with the rest of their infrastructure, he said.

Theimer said this market became interesting to Microsoft as the use of clusters moved beyond government and academic settings into businesses. Car companies and drug companies are among the early users of such clusters, he said, noting that Microsoft has a cluster internally that its treasury uses to evaluate the company's vast investment portfolio.

The other factor that makes the market compelling is the availability of off-the-shelf software for various industries to do such computing work. In the past, companies had to write their own custom applications.

Even Microsoft's Excel can benefit, he said, noting that some businesses have worksheets that can take hours to calculate. Today, such work requires third-party add-ons such as software from Platform Computing. However, Theimer said that Microsoft may be interested in offering that capability itself. "Microsoft is also looking at this," Theimer said.

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