February 4, 2014

Could Microsoft’s CEO Refresh Renew HPC Focus?

Nicole Hemsoth

It’s been some time since Microsoft folded its Technical Computing group into the more general Azure cloud division—and since that time, the company has been uncharacteristically silent about what the future of HPC will look like.

With Windows Server almost invisible on the Top 500 (present only on two mid-list systems, one of which is in the China), their tooling moving always closer to mainline enterprise needs, and the Azure cloud (which does have HPC-flavored nodes available) story limp in terms of publicly noted HPC applications actually running on it, one has to ask whether it’s too late for new life to be breathed into their once robust technical computing focus.

But in a case like this, with a very large, monolithic company that seems to favor greater consolidation of divisions under a unified banner (in this case cloud), is change possible? Can an organization be too big to innovate for the (supposedly) “small” niche at the highest end? Is it a cultural (lack of) focus at Microsoft that defines HPC as something to be done to achieve “thought leadership” over tangible technology (and real profit) to engage a core community? And then further, even if this is a priority, what does the arrival of a new CEO–one who has one foot in R&D/emerging technologies and another in all-out enterprise growth–actually mean going forward?

To be fair, with the vaguely HPC-esque “Modeling the World” campaign and other efforts they’ve rolled out over the last few years, Microsoft is not necessarily making the strict distinctions between HPC and more general large-scale enterprise computing. For instance, heir recent emphasis on “Big Compute” as the path forward signifies a merging together of large-scale computational and data realms to meet whatever business comes their way. In Microsoft’s view, however, all of this is centered on action inside their own cloud. The problem is, even with some nodes suited to serving compute-intensive jobs, the cloud as a concept represents some stiff barriers for those who value performance, node to node communication and other factors that clouds aren’t always primed for. It will be tough to get the message out that applications aren’t just scaling (that’s the “simple” part for cloud vendors), but that they’re fine tuned for demanding HPC applications that aren’t already a nicely parallelized package already molded to what clouds like to float.

The question is, what will Microsoft become in the future with a CEO who is far more aggressive about R&D and thinks as both a computational scientist as well as a businessman?

Since Ballmer’s been at the helm of Microsoft, the technical computing group’s role (and voice) has dwindled to almost nothing. What if a new CEO—one that understands the value of R&D, balancing high-end compute capability within a broader message, and the importance of being a leader in academic, government and other key HPC-heavy verticals—takes the lead on this?

It may be asking a bit much of Microsoft (or Satya Nadella) to change the trajectory to fit the HPC emphasis, but here are a few key facts that make one think that Nadella might be more inclined to invest anew in the kind of R&D required to make the softies care about HPC again:

  • Nadella’s background in the Azure group focused on both enterprise and technical computing group tooling and services, lending him keen insight into the balance of current resources as well as customer demand for both sides. He’s quite likely to understand where the gaps are in terms of cloud adoption for HPC applications in the context of real user interest in the platform.
  • Speaking of his background—he’s both an engineer and a businessman. His early academic career included a B.A. in Engineering in Electronics (Manipal Institute of Technology) as well as an MS in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He added an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.
  • He’s worked at Sun Microsystems—meaning HPC and supercomputing is far from foreign to him as both a culture and set of collective needs and goals. While it might not have been his focus there (he was on the OS side working on what would eventually spin into Windows NT) he was closely involved with the Unix and 32-bit system requirements of the time.
  • During his time at Microsoft, he’s seen the IT world from a number of perspectives, including in his role as President of Server and Tools, Senior VP of R&D for the Online Services Division, VP of Microsoft’s Business Division and VP of their search and advertising platform group (which was behind Bing development).

While certainly, these things together don’t tie him to a distinct HPC agenda, he does appear to have respect for research and development, respect for broader enterprise growth into major verticals (many of which have at least some commercial HPC components) and a will to make Microsoft the engine of big business by bringing them “big compute.”

His first email to Microsoft employees has been circulating around today. Thought we’d share to shed further light on the new face of the company…

From: Satya Nadella
To: All Employees
Date: Feb. 4, 2014
Subject: RE: Satya Nadella – Microsoft’s New CEO

Today is a very humbling day for me. It reminds me of my very first day at Microsoft, 22 years ago. Like you, I had a choice about where to come to work. I came here because I believed Microsoft was the best company in the world. I saw then how clearly we empower people to do magical things with our creations and ultimately make the world a better place. I knew there was no better company to join if I wanted to make a difference. This is the very same inspiration that continues to drive me today.

It is an incredible honor for me to lead and serve this great company of ours. Steve and Bill have taken it from an idea to one of the greatest and most universally admired companies in the world. I’ve been fortunate to work closely with both Bill and Steve in my different roles at Microsoft, and as I step in as CEO, I’ve asked Bill to devote additional time to the company, focused on technology and products. I’m also looking forward to working with John Thompson as our new Chairman of the Board.

While we have seen great success, we are hungry to do more. Our industry does not respect tradition — it only respects innovation. This is a critical time for the industry and for Microsoft. Make no mistake, we are headed for greater places — as technology evolves and we evolve with and ahead of it. Our job is to ensure that Microsoft thrives in a mobile and cloud-first world.

As we start a new phase of our journey together, I wanted to share some background on myself and what inspires and motivates me.

Who am I?

I am 46. I’ve been married for 22 years and we have 3 kids. And like anyone else, a lot of what I do and how I think has been shaped by my family and my overall life experiences. Many who know me say I am also defined by my curiosity and thirst for learning. I buy more books than I can finish. I sign up for more online courses than I can complete. I fundamentally believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things. So family, curiosity and hunger for knowledge all define me.

Why am I here?

I am here for the same reason I think most people join Microsoft — to change the world through technology that empowers people to do amazing things. I know it can sound hyperbolic — and yet it’s true. We have done it, we’re doing it today, and we are the team that will do it again.

I believe over the next decade computing will become even more ubiquitous and intelligence will become ambient. The coevolution of software and new hardware form factors will intermediate and digitize — many of the things we do and experience in business, life and our world. This will be made possible by an ever-growing network of connected devices, incredible computing capacity from the cloud, insights from big data, and intelligence from machine learning.

This is a software-powered world.

It will better connect us to our friends and families and help us see, express, and share our world in ways never before possible. It will enable businesses to engage customers in more meaningful ways.

I am here because we have unparalleled capability to make an impact.

Why are we here?

In our early history, our mission was about the PC on every desk and home, a goal we have mostly achieved in the developed world. Today we’re focused on a broader range of devices. While the deal is not yet complete, we will welcome to our family Nokia devices and services and the new mobile capabilities they bring us.

As we look forward, we must zero in on what Microsoft can uniquely contribute to the world. The opportunity ahead will require us to reimagine a lot of what we have done in the past for a mobile and cloud-first world, and do new things.

We are the only ones who can harness the power of software and deliver it through devices and services that truly empower every individual and every organization. We are the only company with history and continued focus in building platforms and ecosystems that create broad opportunity.

Qi Lu captured it well in a recent meeting when he said that Microsoft uniquely empowers people to “do more.” This doesn’t mean that we need to do more things, but that the work we do empowers the world to do more of what they care about — get stuff done, have fun, communicate and accomplish great things. This is the core of who we are, and driving this core value in all that we do — be it the cloud or device experiences — is why we are here.

What do we do next?

To paraphrase a quote from Oscar Wilde — we need to believe in the impossible and remove the improbable.

This starts with clarity of purpose and sense of mission that will lead us to imagine the impossible and deliver it. We need to prioritize innovation that is centered on our core value of empowering users and organizations to “do more.” We have picked a set of high-value activities as part of our One Microsoft strategy. And with every service and device launch going forward we need to bring more innovation to bear around these scenarios.

Next, every one of us needs to do our best work, lead and help drive cultural change. We sometimes underestimate what we each can do to make things happen and overestimate what others need to do to move us forward. We must change this.

Finally, I truly believe that each of us must find meaning in our work. The best work happens when you know that it’s not just work, but something that will improve other people’s lives. This is the opportunity that drives each of us at this company.

Many companies aspire to change the world. But very few have all the elements required: talent, resources, and perseverance. Microsoft has proven that it has all three in abundance. And as the new CEO, I can’t ask for a better foundation.

Let’s build on this foundation together.



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