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Supercomputing Show: Microsoft, HPC, and Top500

By Salvatore Salamone

Dec 2005 / Jan 2006 | Microsoft’s official entry into the high-performance computing (HPC) market and the release of the latest Top500 supercomputer list, confirming IBM’s dominance in the field, were the headline makers at the SC05: Gateway to Discovery conference* in Seattle in November.

In recent years, the event has expanded its scope from just supercomputing to a much broader HPC emphasis including HPC systems, networking, and high-performance storage. This year, high-performance analytics was added as a new dedicated topic at the show, which drew some 250 exhibitors and 10,000 attendees.

Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates kicked off the SC05 conference by sharing his thoughts on how innovations in HPC will improve collaboration and speed research developments by connecting scientists, computing resources, and data.

His talk, titled “The Future of Computing in the Sciences,” essentially marked Microsoft’s official push into the HPC market — a push that included the release of the beta 2 version of Microsoft’s HPC cluster software and the announcement of numerous software partners lined up to support Microsoft’s efforts in the HPC arena.

Gates pointed to several industry megatrends that are impacting the way research is conducted. These include increased processing power of HPC systems, service-oriented architectures that make it easier to share and access data, new computer form factors (Tablet PCs, PDAs, cell phones, etc.) that collect data, and the digitalization of simulation and modeling. “With computer modeling, we’re figuring out what is happening in the real world,” said Gates.

As scientists have more and more complex data to work with, researchers “will need new software to figure out what resources are needed to work with the data.” One area Gates believes needs more work is on visualization to provide insight into data.

Gates also spoke about Microsoft’s work in in the HPC arena. Microsoft announced the availability of the beta 2 version of Windows Compute Cluster 2003 (see “A New Window on HPC Clusters,” Nov. 2005 Bio•IT World, page 34). Like other Microsoft efforts, the company will rely on partners and independent software vendors to reach the life sciences market. To that end, Microsoft announced about 20 partners, including Accelrys, The BioTeam, MathWorks, Platform, and Wolfram Research.

Emerging Trends
On the show floor and in conference sessions, some of the more interesting themes included discussions about personal supercomputing systems, acceleration technology, and the Top500 list.

Gates discussed the implications of having supercomputing power available from the desktop to the high-end cluster. Among the vendors targeting the personal supercomputing (or at least the deskside supercomputing) market included Orion MultiSystems and Penguin Computing.

Orion was showing its DS-96, a 96-node cluster (a finalist in the 2005 Bio•IT World Best of Show Awards), while Penguin Computing unveiled its Penguin Application-Ready Cluster Portfolio, a line of workgroup or personal clusters that combine hardware and software. The systems are HPC turnkey clusters designed for researchers with no IT support.

On the accelerator front, attendees flocked to hear new approaches to using dedicated hardware to accelerate HPC applications from among others, CPU Technology, Mitrionics, and Synective Labs. On the show floor, systems vendors including Cray and SGI showcased their latest technologies to tap the processing power of field-programmable gate arrays.

The session on the Top500 supercomputers was a slight anticlimax, given IBM’s domination at the top of the list. IBM systems accounted for the top three and five of the top 10 systems. In fact, the top two systems were both Blue Gene systems coming in with benchmarked performances, respectively, of 280.6 and 91.29 tera-FLOPS.


* SC05: Gateway to Discovery conference; Seattle, Nov. 12-18, 2005

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