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Customers take Microsoft clusters seriously – true

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SC06 Microsoft has been knocked here and elsewhere for having puny clusters – the kinds of clusters people wouldn't dare show to the computational fluid dynamics experts in their families. As it turns out, the jabs against Microsoft's wee clusters might be unfair, according to none other than Microsoft.

More than half of the clusters sold running Windows Compute Cluster Server (CCS) 2003 have more than 1,000 processors, Microsoft marketing director Shawn Hansen told us today at the Supercomputing event. Hansen declined to say how many CCS clusters have been sold.

The top system – a Dell cluster at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) - has 2,500 servers and owns the 27th spot on the current Top500 supercomputers list. All told, Linux runs on 376 of the top 500 systems and CCS is just a blip.

When Microsoft officially shipped CCS in August, it expected to trail Linux on a number of benchmarks and to see most clusters top out at 128 processors. So far, however, partners such as HP have been able to tweak their systems to beat out Linux on some key metrics, while other partners have chipped in to help CCS clusters reach unexpected heights.

"There have been really surprising results for us," Hansen said.

In the coming years, Microsoft hopes to attack the highest-end Linux accounts, while also sticking to its main goal of pushing clusters downstream. The company is convinced that a broad affinity with Windows will convince smaller customers to give clusters a try.

To help out developers, Microsoft has been releasing and will continue to put out tools for writing parallel applications that can be spread across numerous machines.

"The idea is to convince people to go after parallelizing applications that are not thought of as classic HPC (high performance computing) apps," Hansen said. "We see that as being a big play."

Hansen refused to divulge any more details on Microsoft's CCS work. Specifically, he avoided a date for a future version of the product or specifications on what such a product would contain. Although, customers can expect to see a new version of CCS based on Longhorn Server.

In the meantime, Microsoft plans to ship its first CCS service pack in the first quarter. The core OS will be based on Windows Server SP2. A "steady stream" of service packs will follow from there. So you can look forward to that.

The likes of HP, Tyan and Bull have been the most vocal backers of CCS thus far, and you can get the OS installed by Dell on its Xeon and Opteron systems and can also buy the OS on IBM gear from resellers.

The software support for Microsoft has even extended to the point where parallel file systems from IBM (GPFS), SGI (CXFS) and Polyserve all run with CCS.

In the coming years, the pressure will be on Microsoft to keep pace with Linux on the HPC front. Intense interest in Linux from the HPC crowd has resulted in the creation of hundreds of useful and esoteric applications.

Microsoft wants to use its muscle to generate the same kind of developer interest and then to put a pretty interface on its CCS software so that more people can tap the power of clusters. Having a number of 1,000-plus processor systems gives Microsoft a nice push in the right direction. That said, the Beast has a long, long way still to go. ®

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