While recent news headlines may be focused on Microsoft's attempt to buy Yahoo!, or its decision to continue shipping Windows XP for low-end PCs, the Redmond software giant has been making great strides in an area that hasn't been getting as much press attention: the high performance computing (HPC) market.

Last November, Microsoft announced that it had released the first public beta of Microsoft Windows HPC Server 2008. Unlike the standard, enterprise-oriented editions of Windows Server 2008, HPC Server 2008 is focused on serving the needs of the HPC market. "The basic concept of HPC is any workload that requires more than PC," says Shawn Hansen, Microsoft's director of marketing for their server and tools business. "Nearly all modern airplane design and simulation is done using HPC, as are most computer animated films." Hansen explained that the auto industry uses HPC for simulated car crashes, and nuclear researchers commonly use HPC to simulate nuclear testing. HPC has also been largely dominated by machines running Linux, UNIX, and other operating systems, but Microsoft hopes HPC Server 2008 will help them make inroads into that market.

So what makes HPC Server 2008 so special for high-end computing applications? For starters, HPC Server 2008 features improved manageability and scalabity for HPC environments, as well as support for high-speed speed networking and clustered files systems. Advanced failover features improve reliability and up-time, while a service oriented architecture (SOA) job scheduler should make using HPC Server 2008 easier than it's predecessor, Windows Compute Server Cluster 2003. (Which, in a testament to Microsoft's quixotic product marketing strategy, was released in June. Of 2006.)

In a news release supporting the launch of the HPC Server 2008 beta, Kril Faenov, general manager of HPC at Microsoft, said that "Windows HPC Server 2008 allows customers to achieve the levels of scalability and performance of the most efficient clusters in the Top500 benchmark, while making it dramatically more productive to deploy, utilize and integrate the advanced HPC clusters within their environment."

Microsoft has indicated that HPC Server 2008 will be available in Q3/Q4 2008, but the beta is available now and can be downloaded here.

And there's been even more news to indicate that Microsoft has now set its sights on the HPC market: Microsoft and HP announced that they were joining forces with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) to create two new Universal Parallel Computing Research Centers. In the news release announcing the partnership, Microsoft claims that the project is the "first joint industry and university research collaboration of this magnitude in the U.S."

Microsoft has also pushed into HPC industry verticals. The software giant has historically been adept as entering markets with lots of profit potential, so a move into the oil and gas industry with their HPC offerings seems like a smart move. Despite the popular notion that plump oil executives spend their time doing laps in swimming pools filled with money--think Scrooge McDuck here--the reality is that the research, exploration, surveying, and drilling for new gas and oil deposits can be monumentally difficult and expensive. Microsoft is surely seeing dollar signs here, and HPC is an ideal way for Microsoft to enter a new market flush with profits and receptive to lower cost alternatives. Microsoft even has a Web site devoted to their efforts in the oil and gas industry, which you can see here.

Microsoft's Hansen points to a number of driving factors behind Microsoft's renewed push into the HPC market, beginning with the sheer growth of that market segment. "The HPC market is growing much faster that the general x86 computing market," says Hansen. A recent IDC report supports Hansen's view, announcing that the HPC server market grew 15.5% and reached an all-time high of $11.6 billion in 2007.

Hansen says that Microsoft has learned a great deal about the emergence of multi-core/mini-core, and how those technologies are helping parallel and high performance computing become more prevalent. "We're seeing a whole new variety of applications that are very performance sensitive," says Hansen. "Companies like Anysys and applications like MatLab are examples of a new wave of \[companies and applications\] that are using HPC." Hansen points to companies involved with data modeling, or those that create actuarial software for the insurance industry, and high-end design and engineering firms that are now embracing HPC that may not have been able to afford the technology in the past.

Microsoft may only have a small sliver of the HPC market they can lay claim to at the moment, but Hansen stresses that Microsoft is committed to the HPC market for the long term, and is prepared to spend lots of money and years (if not decades) to improve their position in the HPC market. Microsoft's HPC initiatives will undoubtedly also help the company's R&D efforts, and lessons learned from the HPC industry could potentially be adapted to Microsoft's enterprise and consumer products as Moore's Law continues to advance (and hardware prices continue to drop).

"When we decide to invest in a market, we invest for the long term," says Hansen. "We've made some of the largest investments in HPC, perhaps more than any company in the world. We have a dedicated team of people that only thinks about HPC. We've had lots of success \[in the HPC market\] over the last two years...we've outgrown Linux in the HPC space...and we're seeing strong demand in many HPC verticals, like financial services and academia. We're very bullish on the our future in the HPC market."