Microsoft announces plan to simplify parallel-computing

High-performance computing is leading the market and Microsoft is struggling to keep up.

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The importance of high-performance computing was starkly revealed this week by some numbers released by IDC: One in four of all microprocessors shipped today are being installed in HPC systems.

The market has grown dramatically: In 2004, about 16% of processors or 1.65 million, were shipped for HPC systems; last year, it was 3.35 million processors, or just over 26%, reported market research company IDC.

These numbers explain, in shorthand, why Microsoft this week said it is planning a new development effort in parallel computing to make it easier to program for multi-core and large systems. The numbers explain why Hewlett-Packard has put a blade system on wheels for office use that it calls a "supercomputer in a box" and why Intel is pitching its new Xeon Penryn family processor to HPC users.

But if you want to know why HPC matters to these vendors, someone who can explain is Eric Morales, an engineer at golf club maker Ping. Ping installed a Cray XD1 supercomputer three years ago and cut processing time for design simulations from 13 hours to 20 minutes. It turns out that this system was just the appetizer.

"I think we've done as much as we can with what we have, but I feel that we need to expand," said Morales. "I think there is more that we can do."

Morales wants to apply HPC's ability to show, in colourful and exacting detail, what happens to a golf club when it makes contact with a ball. Price and performance improvements help make possible HPC's expanded role in golf-gear manufacturing.

Morales said that while he was walking around the show floor at the SC07 supercomputing conference, this week, he saw systems for $20,000 (£9,759) with the processing power that he paid $100,000 (£48,814) for several years ago. HPC systems "keep getting more and more advanced, but they are also coming down in price," he said.

The worldwide technical HPC server market is expected to hit $11bn (£5.3bn) this year. By 2011, it will be more than $15bn (£7.3bn), an annual growth rate of nearly 9%, according to IDC.

HPC systems run applications, such as fluid dynamics, that need lots of compute power. They use applications designed to run in parallel, which means they can use multiple processor cores and clusters simultaneously. With the continuing development of multi-core chips, the need for applications that can run in parallel is increasing.

That's why Microsoft this week announced a new initiative, along with its updated cluster server, HPC Server 2008, to build out a development environment for parallel applications, as well as make it easier for its customers integrate these applications in their existing environments.

"We're consistently seeing the HPC market growing beyond the traditional focus," said Kyril Faenov, general manager of HPC at Microsoft, to "commercial adoption of HPC systems at a broad level."

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