Microsoft's server division expects to release a beta version of Windows Server 2003 tailor-made for the high performance computing (HPC) market by year's end, Microsoft said, but failed to clarify whether either Intel or AMD's top-end 64-bit processors would be supported. It spearheads an attack on a market where Unix and Linux are firmly entrenched.

According to Dennis Oldroyd, director in Microsoft's Windows Server Group, the new product, called Windows Server 2003 HPC Edition, will integrate Microsoft's Windows Server with other software considered standard in high performance computing, including a cluster manager, a scheduler and an implementation of the Message Passing Interface protocol.

Microsoft hopes that by creating a standard HPC edition it will simplify things for system administrators and software developers and make it easier to create Windows clusters. The aim is to allow the building of large scalable systems using multiple low-cost computers.

"What we're going to be delivering here is a pre-configured environment for HPC, so that ISVs can build applications for it and IT professionals can be trained to administer it," Oldroyd said. "There's a broad range of middleware that is supported on Windows right now, but you've got to build your own environment, so there's not a lot of predictability in terms of the capabilities of the product."

Although Oldroyd declined to say whether the product would support 32-bit systems or 64-bit systems built with Intel's Itanium 2 or AMD's Opteron processor, at least one report suggests that 64-bit computing is firmly on the road map.

At present, the HPC market has been dominated by Unix and Linux and another report suggests that Microsoft badly wants to break into this market to break that near-monopoly. The company may encounter resistance given the high technical competence of HPC users and their ability to rewrite parts of the OS where bugs need to be shaken out or performance tweaked. With open source, that's easy; with Microsoft's proprietary code, it may prove a big barrier to entry.

However, as high performance clusters have become more widely used in areas like financial services, life sciences, and the petroleum industry, they have begun to attract the attention of new players like Microsoft and Apple. For example, earlier this week Apple announced the sale of a 1,566-processor system based on its Xserve G5 servers to US Army contractor Colsa.

"It's an interesting proposition for Microsoft because it is a market where they have some opportunity to penetrate," said Christopher Willard, a research vice president at IDC. The HPC market also tends to serve as an incubator where new technologies can be tested and developed before they are sold to different types of customers, he said. "Companies that enter this market get a side benefit of having people work with, and sometimes on, their technologies."

The market for HPC hardware and software, which was worth $2.4 billion in 2003, is expected to grow to $5.1 billion by 2008, according to Willard.

Microsoft has already seen Windows HPC deployments in areas like digital media and financial services, Oldroyd said. "We see the market moving from niche into more mainstream as it moves out of academia and research, and into the enterprise, he said. The product is being developed by a relatively small, 20-person team within Microsoft's Windows server division.

The production version of Windows Server 2003, HPC Edition is expected to ship in the second half of 2005, Oldroyd said. Pricing information is not yet being released.