Microsoft offers Beta 2 of Compute Cluster Server 2003

Microsoft continues to edge toward the high-performance computing space, releasing Tuesday the second beta of its Windows Server 2003 operating system for clustered systems.

Beta 2 of Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003 is being tested by Microsoft users in clusters as large as 128 nodes, all connected in a single system aimed at superfast problem solving.

Built on the 64-bit version of Windows Server 2003, the clustering edition is expected to be released by mid-2006, according to Kyril Faenov, director of high-performance computing with the Windows Server Group.

As it has done in the past with other software markets such as databases and CRM, Microsoft is expected to first target lower-end departmental and workgroup clustering by offering easier-to-use features and integration for companies already running Windows, said Laura DiDio, an analyst at Boston-based Yankee Group.

The first beta version of the software was released in September and is being tested by 1,600 companies and institutions, including the Seattle-based genetics research lab of Merck & Co. The drug company is just beginning to set up a cluster of 20 64-bit dual-processor machines, according to Eric Schadt, senior scientific director for genetics research.

Schadt's group now uses a 500-processor cluster running Linux on a variety of hardware to create simulations of gene networks and their behavior during drug treatments. Migrating to Windows Compute Cluster, he said, will save time because Merck does most of its prototyping and data mining in Windows.

"What a great day it will be when I don't have to have a dual-boot computing environment where I am always switching between Linux and Windows, depending on the problem of the day," Schadt said.

Installing the Windows software "has not been too painful," he said. "I think Windows will catch up quickly [to Linux] if the environment works well, which does remain to be seen."

Microsoft's announcement was made during the annual SuperComputing conference in Seattle. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was slated to deliver the keynote address Tuesday at the event, which runs through Friday.

High-performance computing is a new market for Microsoft. The latest list of supercomputers released yesterday by Top500.org showed that 74 percent of the 500 fastest supercomputers in the world run Linux, 20 percent use various flavors of Unix, and the rest run other operating systems, including Mac OS X. None run Windows.

But the door to the market is now opening for Microsoft with the rapid uptake in 32- or 64-bit systems. More than three-fourths of the 500 fastest supercomputers used Intel Corp. or Advanced Micro Devices Inc. processors, which both support Windows. By contrast, 41 percent of supercomputers relied on Intel or AMD chips in November 2003, and just 12 percent did so in November 2002, according to Top500.org.

The Cluster Server's current 128-node limit may hinder the software's appeal at large scientific or medical institutions for now, but it may fit well with the more modest performance needs of mainstream enterprises, DiDio said. "There is such a thing as too much firepower," she said.

Microsoft has not announced a price for Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003. It has previously said that it expects to price each copy less than the Standard edition of Windows Server 2003, which starts at US$999.

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