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Microsoft punts HPC Server 2008 R2

Third time indeed a charm

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Microsoft used the High Performance Computing Financial Markets conference in New York as the launching pad for its much-awaited third release of its technical computing variant of its Windows server operating system, Windows HPC Server 2008 R2. And the quants on Wall Street and around the financial markets are eager to get their hands on the product.

So eager, in fact, that one of the dozen customers who were among the 30 early Technology Adoption Program (TAP) partners helping Microsoft test the software decided it could not wait for the Excel feature and put it in production as soon as it went into its second beta back in April. Of those 30 TAP testers, a dozen of them were using the Excel bursting feature. Microsoft had several hundred open beta users of the R2 update of HPC Server 2008, but does not know what percentage of them were using the Excel feature.

Windows HP Server 2008 R2 was perhaps the star of the SC09 superconputing conference last year when Microsoft previewed a feature that allows the Excel 2010 spreadsheet program to dispatch calculations and macros running in complex models to dispatch their work seamlessly from a Windows XP, Vista, or 7 workstation to a cluster of x64 servers running the HPC Server variant. Microsoft reckons there are about 300 million paid Excel users worldwide (with the base estimated at 500 million including pirated copies), with somewhere between 50 and 55 million users being heavy users with complex models, or so-called "quants" in the Wall Street lingo.

These are not your normal HPC users, to be sure, but the clusters are crunching data and performing calculations in parallel to get those calculations done just the same, and with more than 80 percent of financial services companies reporting that Excel is a key tool used to do analysis, it is too big of an opportunity to ignore.

Microsoft is taking a two-prong approach with HPC Server 2008 R2 as it tries to wrestle with the Linux operating system and its dominance over supercomputing. First, as El Reg previously reported when Beta 2 first debuted, Microsoft is tuning up the Message Passing Interface (MPI) stack that is used in parallel supercomputing clusters to get near-parity with Linux operating systems. The other thing is to expand the HPC market to include techies in financial services, life sciences, and other industries who work from Windows-based workstations today (using Excel or other industry-specific applications) and who are mostly allergic to Linux.

Windows HPC Server 2008 scales to over 1,000 nodes right out of the box, said Bill Hilf, general manager of technical computing at Microsoft in launching the tool at the financial services event in New York. One of the key things about the product is that being a Windows product, it can seamless integrate into Windows-based networks and use Active Directory authentication to control who has what access to what server cluster resources. And in a demonstration of the product that Microsoft gave, a price sensitivity Excel workbook calculation that would have taken two hours to run on an eight-core Windows workstation was dispatched over the network to run in parallel with a 500-node server cluster back at Microsoft headquarters and finished in under two minutes. On Wall Street in particular, time is money.

In addition to being able to dispatch Excel crunching out to clusters, Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 is able to also harvest compute cycles from Windows 7-based PCs. You can set all kinds of thresholds for when HPC Server can dispatch work to Windows 7 PCs, including time of day or CPU thresholds, and you can also set it up so when users move their mice the HPC work stops so they have their full machine back. HPC Server cannot dispatch work to Windows XP or Windows Vista PCs, or to desktops running Mac OS or Linux for that matter.

At the event, Microsoft also showed a technology preview of a capability that is due in the next release of HPC Server 2008 that will allow clusters running the Microsoft supercomputing stack to burst applications out onto its Azure cloud. Adding Azure to the cluster will be no more difficult than plugging in your account information for Azure into the HPC Server console, feeding it a node template, and dispatching the software stack running on your internal cluster out to Azure. (This part takes time, obviously). But once the Azure nodes are configured with your software, they look and act the same as the nodes in your local cluster.

Ryan White, group program manager for high performance computing at Microsoft, says that the company will allow HPC Server 2008 to burst to other clouds, not just Azure. SGI's Cyclone cloud is on the list of future supported platforms, as is Amazon's EC2 cloud and Numbus Technology's Mezeo storage cloud.

As usual, there is more than one edition of the Microsoft product. But there is a new twist on it. HPC Server 2008 R2 is similar to the normal Standard Edition of Windows, except it has its main memory quadrupled to 128 GB and has a lower price at $475 per server. (Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard Edition costs $1,029 with a five-user license.) There are two editions of add-on software that gives the special HPC functions, such as the tuned MPI stack, cluster management tools, and SharePoint HPC portal, in it.

The HPC Pack Express Edition has all of these goodies and also will include the capability to add Azure computing; this edition is free for download. If you want to use the HPC Services for Excel 2010 or the Desktop Compute Cloud features, you need to get the HPC Pack Enterprise Edition, which adds another $450 per node to the software license cost. ®

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