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July 11, 2013

Commentary: Microsoft Reorg Sidesteps HPC

Nicole Hemsoth

Today Microsoft announced a sweeping realignment of their corporate strategy, one that takes a loose collection of disparate divisions and clusters them around a few key themes. 

As you probably already guessed, none of these themes have anything to do with high performance computing, either on the Windows Server, software services, or Azure fronts, although the company insists that its cloud is the appropriate place for broader enterprise technical computing.

Again, not a surprise, but Microsoft had only 3 systems sporting HPC server left on the Top500 as of this June’s list (down a notch from just four at ISC ’12) and while they had a presence at ISC, they talked a lot of Hadoopery and big data and sidestepped questions about their path in HPC. 

The writing on the wall wasn’t difficult to see as early as a couple of years ago when they bundled up their Technical Computing group, which was where the HPC innovation happened, and shipped them off to the clouds. Specifically, they put that talent into the Azure group. And for those who remember that the “P” in HPC is for performance, the cloud seemed a rather unlikely home for such folk.

Microsoft is betting the farm on its consumer devices and offerings, but when it comes the high-end data processing for enterprise and research, Azure is where they’re led. The company has touted the fact that it sports some Infiniband-enabled machines but other than that, it’s remained mum about where HPC stands.

And if it’s the cloud where they expect to draw the old HPC crowd, they might have to lure them away from other offerings. Outside of pure HPC on demand services offered by the likes of Penguin, Cycle Computing and others, the elephant in the HPC cloud room is Amazon. Its services took the HPC leap with some experimental GPU and 10 GbE offerings via their EC2 HPC instance types–so Microsoft isn’t the first by any means–and has work to do to lure users back to their trusty old brand. 

This marks what appears to be another company making a slow turn away from high performance computing goals–at least directly or with a sense of priority. Along these same lines, this week we also talked to AMD, which while cognizant of value on the APU front for its processors in HPC, said it’s a narrow niche–they want to reach ever-larger audiences with once-cloistered offerings. 

It may be a bit of a reach too far to say that Microsoft and AMD are ditching their formerly strong(ish) HPC roots–but in the language of both, the trend is toward the consumer and umbrella sense of “enterprise” (which is perhaps the most general, overused and vague term to infiltrate technology terminology since “big data”). 

This isn’t anything new, of course, but there has been a slow trickling trend toward dressing up what are essentially HPC-oriented products and services so they look better for the world of big business (versus big research). Nearly all the vendors at ISC this summer had a “big data” story to tell–sometimes one that had little to do with their HPC messaging–because that’s the clear way to bring such “obscure” technologies into the mainstream fore for businesses. Or at least that seems to be the thinking.

But Microsoft isn’t really bothering to even hint at the research community in its restructuring announcement. And this is something worth pointing out.

Much of what Steve Ballmer had to say in an internal memo today that was made public sounds very much like the words Sony or Verizon might use. Terms like “consumers” and “devices” and even the “Xbox” were stressed versus “research” or even the vaguer “R&D”. In other words, Microsoft is staking its claim on the general consumer market through continued reach with its gaming, OS and device products, but is also looking to the new generation of enterprise computing. 

Take a gander at the memo here–it’s vague, wordy, and like all things that are vague and wordy, it’s that way because the writer just isn’t totally sure but wants to look like there’s a lot to say. (We’ve all done it…).

We’ve been working on getting someone with an HPC slant from Microsoft to chat with us but right now it’s all about the cloud. Once the reorg dust settles, we’ll definitely follow up.

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