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Microsoft touts supercomputing for the masses

DRESDEN, Germany (Reuters) - Supercomputing, once the preserve of top scientific and academic institutions which needed entire rooms to house their gigantic machines, can now be had out of a box from Microsoft for $50,000.

The only problem for Microsoft is to persuade small companies on a budget and without IT expertise they actually need it.

At the International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden this week, Microsoft -- a tiny player in the $10 billion market -- campaigned to bring high-performance computing (HPC) to the mainstream.

Microsoft is on a mission to persuade small companies they need -- and can manage -- affordable HPC systems that run on the familiar Windows system.

HPC is any type of computing system that uses more than one computer working in parallel or clusters to solve complicated problems in fields such as engineering, meteorology or genetics.

It includes the so-called supercomputers used by the likes of CERN, the world’s largest particle-physics lab.

So far, Microsoft has about 2 to 3 percent of the market, according to market research firm IDC, with the vast majority of HPC systems running on open-source Linux or its cousin, Unix.

But Kyril Faenov, who is heading Microsoft’s HPC drive, is bullish about the company’s prospects.

“Windows server has over 60 percent market share in markets where Microsoft is active,” he told Reuters. “We’re aspiring to the same share as we have in other markets. That’s a comfortable target for us.”

NO TIME FRAME

He declined to specify a time frame for Microsoft to reach that goal, and admitted: “The hardest thing is delivering the message about where Microsoft brings value.”

IDC technical computing analyst Jie Wu said there was room for Microsoft to make an impact on the market but it would need good business applications to persuade smaller companies they needed more processing power.

“If there are no applications, users don’t have anything to play with so there’s no incentive,” she said.

Microsoft has teamed up with partners including French software company Dassault Systemes, the MathWorks Inc. and Parallel Geoscience Corp. to build applications running on the Windows cluster server.

But Wu said so far she saw little appetite in the market.

“We talk to companies every quarter and we ask them but so far they’re not interested,” she said. “But when the timing’s right Microsoft is ready to jump on the speedwagon.”

IBM, whose BlueGene/L computer was confirmed this week as the world’s most powerful computer system for the fourth time running, has less interest in the lower end of the market.

“It’s not like the iPod market. You’re not talking about millions and millions of users. It’s still measured in the tens of thousands,” IBM’s head of deep computing, Dave Turek, told Reuters in an interview.

“The nature of what HPC is not widely understood,” he said, but added: “Microsoft in a way has taken up the baton -- and good for them.”

IDC’s Wu said the truth was simply that Microsoft could afford to take the risk. “They are very ambitious because they have deep pockets.”

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