This is a contributed piece by Randall Hand, a regular reader and the publisher of VizWorld.com.
It was back in November when Microsoft released Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 Beta 1 to the world. In the last 3 months Microsoft has spoken to their users and closely monitored how it’s being used, and now has Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 Beta 2 ready. After a short phone call with Microsoft’s Ryan Waite, the Product Unit Manager of the Microsoft High Performance Computing Group, insideHPC got the inside look at some of the ways that Microsoft is improving the centerpiece of its HPC strategy.
Scavenging built in, Windows+Linux goodness
There are a few main features they’ve added that will appeal to HPC Server administrators. The first is the ability to extend the size of your cluster to include any Windows 7 workstations on your network, similar to the Folding@Home or Seti@Home model. This feature works with today’s available Windows 7 install, no patches or upgrades required, and allows you to use idle cycles of your other machines on your network to improve your HPC cluster’s power immediately. Unlike the @home solutions, however, it doesn’t run continuously or in the background but is instead scheduled by the administrator. This means you can make the desktops fully interactive and available to users during the usual workday, and then add them to your HPC cluster overnight.
One other important addition for administrators is improved integration with queueing systems from Adaptive Computing & Platform Computing. Users of those two queueing systems have a great new feature: Hybrid Windows/Linux Clusters. With this feature administrators can dual-boot your nodes as Linux and Windows HPC Server nodes, and the queueing system will dynamically switch between the OS’s (it requires a reboot of course, but the queueing software manages that for you) as the load changes. This means you can have a single cluster to service Windows and Linux applications.
Of course, managing one operating system across a cluster is bad enough, but two is enough to make most admins cry. Through a partnership with Clustercorp, the Rocks+ systems administration package can now not only manage updates and patches on Linux, but on Windows as well. So now you can have a single cluster to run both Windows and Linux applications and a single systems management tool to manage both sides of the house.
One other great feature that is new in Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 Beta 2 is the new support for Network boot. Previously, administrators had to manually install the HPCServer OS on each node of a cluster, making setup and administration a headache. This new beta release adds the capability of running nodes completely diskless, booting from a single central image. This makes administration easier, and also reduces points of failure (no more dead OS drives) and power-consumption (fewer spinning drives), while improving density.
So all in all, it looks like Microsoft is actually making great strides in their HPC Server product. The existing integrations with user tools like Excel and scientific tools like Matlab and Fluent make HPC Server a viable option in the HPC space, and the new features in Beta 2 show that they are quickly learning what they need to implement to make it an attractive alternative to systems administrators and datacenter designers. Add in the new Visual Studio 2010 with support for MPI Debugging and HPC Server design, and it’s also attractive to the software designers.
While I doubt Microsoft will unseat the likes of Linux as the dominant HPC platform, and I don’t think you’ll sites like Oak Ridge switching anytime soon, it’s a great alternative for smaller or corporate shops that already use existing Microsoft platforms and Microsoft-trained administrators. Microsoft’s HPC Server 2008 is becoming a more and more attractive solution.
Randall Hand is the publisher and editor of VizWorld.com, the web’s best site dedicated to computer graphics and scientific visualization.