Microsoft has traditionally had problems entering the high performance computing (HPC) sector -- but the recent release of the 64-bit Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003 (WCCS) product could mark a new chapter in Redmond's wooing of the enterprise. What's more, Microsoft is using third party, open source software as a crucial part of the system -- the first time that it's done so and quite a climb-down from the dissing that Redmond has dished out to its Linux oppos in the past.

The importance of this product to Microsoft is that Linux is well ahead in this corner of the forest. Due for launch next month, the full product will have its work cut out to beat established products, which are largely open source and based around Linux. but it's a market that's growing, with IDC's market research figures showing that HPC deployments were up 70 per cent in 2004, with most of that growth coming from departmental or workgroup clusters costing under $50,000, with most of them using x86 servers: Microsoft's target market.

The aim of the product is to "accelerate time-to-insight by providing an HPC platform that is simple to deploy, operate, and integrate with existing infrastructure and tools", according to Microsoft.

WSCC will be able to cluster up to 64 systems, reckons Microsoft server product boss Bob Muglia and, by all accounts, the system is easy to use, even if hardware requirements will be heavy on the budget. Ultimately, the aim is to reduce the cost of deploying clusters in a technology area that is complex and has traditionally involved expensive skillsets -- a tricky ask when not only do you need specialised knowledge to set up, maintain and manage clusters, you also need expensive, customised cluster-aware applications too.

From Microsoft's perspective, a cluster is a group of connected computers working together to process complex computations. WCCS uses a head node that mediates access to the cluster's resources and provides access to the management interface, as well as to the rest of the network, while compute nodes that do the processing work. From the outside, the cluster looks like a single machine. Typical users would be engineers in manufacturing, geosciences, life sciences, oil and gas, and financial services sectors, and which

Included in the system is a message-passing interface (MPI) layer that the company developed based on open-source code. Using a specification proposed as a standard by an industry committee consisting of vendors, integrators and users.

The rationale behind Microsoft's use of the code was, said product manager John Borozan, to make it easy for independent software vendors to port their products to WCCS. When the move was announced in September 2005, Microsoft's HPC director Kyril Faenov said that Microsoft deliberately hadn't made a lot of noise about it, but that it had saved considerable development effort as a result. In return, Microsoft said it would give back to the open source community all the fixes and changes it makes to the code -- another first.

Is this Microsoft's HPC winner? It's signed up all the hardware vendors you'd expect, including IBM, HP and Dell -- though if you look at the competition, IBM, HP, Dell, and Sun all have established clustering systems in their portfolios -- a classic example of the so-called co-opetition that exists within today's IT industry.

But Microsoft, once it's decided that there's food at the end of the maze, rarely gives up. Above all, it needs to get the price point right -- and that's more about ease of use and deployment than the box's price tag. Early signs are good, with beta testers saying that the system is easier to use than the Linux-based alternatives.

The full price won't however be known until there's a raft of real-world deployments out there.