Microsoft has delayed the release of a special version of Windows Server for high performance computing (HPC) until the first half of next year.

The product, previously known as Windows Server 2003 HPC Edition, was originally slated for late 2005. A first beta version was planned to be available in March or April. The beta release had already slipped from an earlier end-of 2004 target.

The company now needs more time to make the product easier to manage and deploy, a spokeswoman for Microsoft said. The first beta test version of the product, called Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition (CCE), has been delayed until the second half of 2005, she confirmed.

Microsoft made available a software development kit (SDK) for the new Windows Server version in November. The company now plans a second, "refresh," release of that SDK in the middle of 2005, the spokeswoman said. The SDK gives third-party software makers and server vendors an early look at the products architecture. It includes a scheduler and an implementation of the MPI (Message Passing Interface) protocol, Microsoft has said.

The HPC space is currently dominated by the Unix and Linux operating systems running on 64-bit systems. Microsoft is looking to break into the market. The first release of Windows Server 2003 CCE will support x86 processors with 64-bit extensions, but not Intel Corp.'s Itanium 2, Microsoft has said.

Server vendors, including Hewlett-Packard, have pushed Microsoft for Itanium 2 support. The software maker was still evaluating adding support for the processor in the release 2 of Windows Server 2003 CCE, the Microsoft spokeswoman said. The first version wouldn’t support Itanium because Microsoft feels the high-end Intel chip is too expensive and too powerful for the small clusters it is targeting the special Windows Server product for.

Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates is scheduled to keynote at a Super Computing conference in November in Seattle, said Chris Phillips, a general manager in the Windows Server division at Microsoft at an event in San Francisco on Tuesday. Microsoft will talk up Windows Server 2003 CCE there and could use the venue to launch the beta.

Microsoft hopes that by creating Windows Server 2003 CCE, it will simplify things for system administrators and software developers and make it easier to create and manage Windows clusters.

In addition to traditional server companies selling Linux and Unix systems, such as HP, IBM, and Cray, Microsoft will have to battle Apple Computer, which is selling high-performance computing systems based on its Xserve G5 servers.

Robert McMillan contributed to this report.