Supercomputing Windows skips Itanium 2

Microsoft will support only x86 processors with 64-bit extensions when it releases a special version of Windows Server for...

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

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

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

Microsoft plans to support Itanium 2 in a second release of Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition (previously called HPC edition), but has not yet set a release date.

While Microsoft has opted not to support Itanium for now, Hewlett-Packard is pushing the company to do so soon.

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

HP currently sells Itanium 2 in its Integrity servers, as well as systems based on Intel's Xeon and AMD's Opteron 64-bit processors. 

The 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.

Turkel said Microsoft had chosen to support processors with 64-bit extensions first because that was where the highest sales volume was. "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 Itanium-based Integrity side of our business."

Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood agreed that Microsoft was clearly going for volume. "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 high-performance business is in two-way and four-way clustered configurations. That is not an area where Itanium 2 really plays to great strength."

The high-performance space is one of the few segments of the IT industry where Microsoft lacks an installed-base advantage. "Microsoft is going to have to fight tooth and nail for every high-performance sale it gets," Brookwood said.

A first beta of Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition was planned for the end of the year, but has slipped to March or April 2005. The final product release is still slated for late 2005.

A software development kit for the new Windows Server version will be available late this week or next week. The SDK gives third-party software makers and server suppliers an early look at the product architecture. It will include a scheduler and an implementation of the message passing interface protocol.

Microsoft hopes that a standard high-performance edition 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, such as HP, IBM and Cray, Microsoft will have to battle Apple and its Xserve G5 servers.

Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service

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