Sidebar: Gates Seeks High-End Role for Windows

SEATTLE -- When Bill Gates appeared before thousands of mostly technical computing users at Supercomputing 2005 last week, he was speaking to a crowd that makes scant use of Windows in high-performance systems.

Bill Gates, Microsoft Corp.'s chairman and chief software architect
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Bill Gates, Microsoft Corp.'s chairman and chief software architect
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Gates, Microsoft Corp.'s chairman and chief software architect, sought to bridge that divide by stressing what he sees as the commonalities between supercomputing and the "mass computing" market dominated by Windows.

"Many of these challenges that we face in software -- connecting machines together, having parallel algorithms that allow many compute systems to work on a problem and combine their results together -- these problems are very similar to the problems that exist in high-end supercomputing," Gates said.

He added that as processors reach gigahertz speed limits, the need for parallelism will become more important. And he sketched out images of an IT environment with desktop supercomputers linked to more powerful clusters running a mix of technologies.

"Microsoft wants to play a role here -- to be a participant and work with partners to see how our software fits in these solutions," Gates said. Acknowledging that supercomputing setups "will often be extremely heterogeneous," he said Microsoft is reaching out to supercomputing centers to get a better understanding of what it should do with its products so they can "connect up to the other software that they have in a better way."

For now, Windows barely registers a pulse in high-end computing. According to the latest Top500 supercomputing list, which was released at last week's conference, Linux is running on nearly 75% of the 500 largest systems worldwide, while Unix is installed on 20% of them. Even Mac OS X was given a 1% share. Windows wasn't noted at all.

"It's astonishing how they missed out on this altogether," said John Abbott, an analyst at The 451 Group in New York, referring to Microsoft's limited role in high-end technical computing. He added that it's important for Microsoft to be recognized as a factor in the high-performance market because that's where technologies such as grid computing and clustering "are all being proven."

Microsoft last week released the second beta of a version of Windows Server 2003 that's being designed for clustered systems. Beta 2 of Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003 will be tested by users on systems with as many as 128 nodes, and Microsoft said it expects to ship a commercial version by mid-2006.

The first beta was released in September and is being tested by 1,600 companies and other organizations, including the Seattle-based genetics research lab of drug maker Merck & Co. The lab is setting up a cluster of 20 dual-processor machines to run the software, said Eric Schadt, Merck's senior scientific director of genetics research.

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

"What a great day it will be when I don't have to have a dual-boot computing environment where I'm always switching between Linux and Windows depending on the problem of the day," Schadt said. "I think Windows will catch up quickly [to Linux] if the environment works well, which does remain to be seen."

At the supercomputing conference, Martin Gasthuber, a researcher who is working on storage issues at DESY (Deutsche Elektronen-Synchrotron), a high-energy physics laboratory in Hamburg, Germany, was unimpressed by Gates' talk. To Gasthuber, it was all about marketing Microsoft's products.

"For me, it's not a vision; it's the next step he wants to do -- which is coherent with the next generation of products he has in mind," Gasthuber said.

But Ted Dodds, CIO at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said that increased use of Windows clusters is almost inevitable. The notion "of mass computing and very technical specialized computing teaming together, I think, is pretty evident," especially as researchers turn to low-cost commodity clusters to solve problems, Dodd said.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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