Microsoft to skip Itanium with supercomputing Windows

Microsoft to release special version of Windows Server for HPC next year

Microsoft Corp. will support only x86 processors with 64-bit extensions when it releases a special version of Windows Server for high performance computing (HPC) next year, leaving support for Intel Corp.'s Itanium 2 for a later, undefined date.

The HPC space is currently dominated by the Unix and Linux operating systems running on 64-bit systems, including Itanium 2. Microsoft is looking to break into the market, but feels the high-end Intel chip is too expensive and too powerful for the small clusters that its target customers will set up in research and corporate environments.

Microsoft is sharing early details of its Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition, previously called HPC edition, at a supercomputing conference in Pittsburgh this week.

"In our first edition, we don't plan to support Itanium 2," said Greg Rankich, senior product manager at Microsoft, in a telephone interview on Monday. "When you look at our target market, the departmental clusters, Itanium 2 is a bit outside the reach in terms of budget and in terms of needed computing power."

Microsoft plans to support Itanium 2 in a second release of Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition, but no release data has been set for that version, Rankich said.

While Microsoft has opted not to support Itanium for now, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) is pushing the Redmond, Washington, software giant to support the Intel chip, said Ed Turkel manager of product marketing for HP's HPC division.

"We're encouraging them to support Itanium as quickly as possible," he said. "We are certainly seeing customer interest, particularly in organizations where the application set is driven mostly by Windows desktops or in smaller organizations with a Windows infrastructure where introducing another operating system may cause a problem."

HP currently sells HPC systems based on Itanium 2 in its Integrity line of servers. The Palo Alto, California, vendor also sells systems based on Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s (AMD) Opteron 64-bit processors.

64-bit extensions to the standard x86 instruction set in processors from both AMD and Intel offer users greater computing power as systems can process more data per clock cycle and have greater access to memory.

HP understands why Microsoft chose to support processors with 64-bit extensions first -- this is where the highest sales volume is, according to Turkel. "But from our standpoint, we're certainly seeing a tremendous amount of growth in both the x86 with extensions side of our business and the Integrity, the Itanium-based side, of our business," he said.

Microsoft is clearly aiming for a sweet spot in the market in terms of volume, according to Nathan Brookwood, a principal analyst at Insight 64 in Saratoga, California. "Microsoft is a pretty savvy company when it comes to understanding where the volume is in the software market and the volume in terms of HPC business is in two-way and four-way clustered configurations and that is not an area where Itanium (2) really plays to great strength," Brookwood said.

The HPC space is one of the few segments of the computing industry where Microsoft does not go in with an installed-base advantage. "Microsoft is going to have to fight tooth and nail for every HPC sale it gets," Brookwood said.

A first beta version of Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition was planned to be available by the end of the year, but has slipped to March or April 2005. The final product release is still slated for late 2005, Microsoft's Rankich said.

A software development kit (SDK) for the new Windows Server version will be available late this week or next week, he said. The SDK gives third-party software makers and server vendors an early look at the products architecture. It will include a scheduler and an implementation of the MPI (Message Passing Interface) protocol, Rankich said

Microsoft hopes that by creating a standard HPC edition, it will simplify things for system administrators and software developers and make it easier to create Windows clusters. In addition to traditional server companies selling Linux and Unix systems, such as HP, IBM Corp. and Cray Inc., Microsoft will have to battle Apple Computer Inc., which is selling HPC systems based on its Xserve G5 servers.

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