Dan Reed on Technical (Cloud) Computing with Microsoft: Vision

During ISC 2011 in Hamburg I got the opportunity to talk to Microsoft’s Dan Reed, Corporate Vice President, Technology Policy and Extreme Computing Group. It was a very nice discussion soon targeting towards HPC in the Cloud, touching the topics of Microsoft’s Vision, Standards, and Education. Karsten Reineck from the Fraunhofer SCAI was also present, he already put an excerpt of the interview on his blog (in German). The following is my recapitulation of the discussion pointing out his most important statements – part 1 of 2.

Being the person I am, I started the talk with a nasty question on the pricing scheme of Azure (and similar commercial offerings), claiming that it is pretty expensive both per CPU hour as well as per byte of I/O. Just recently we did a full cost accounting to calculate our price per CPU hour for our HPC service, and we found us to be cheaper by a notable factor.

Dan Reed: Academic sites, of reasonable size such as yours, can do HPC cheaper because they are utilizing the hardware on a 24×7 basis. Traditionally, they do not offer service-level agreements on how fast any job starts, they just queue the jobs. Azure is different, and it has to be, one can get the resources available in a guaranteed time frame. As of today, HPC in the Cloud is interesting for burst scenarios where the on-promise resources are not sufficient, or for people for whom traditional HPC is too complex (regardless of Windows vs. Linux, just maintaining an on-premise cluster versus buying HPC time when it is needed).

I am completely in line with that. I expressed my belief that we will need (and have!) academic HPC centers for the foreseeable future. Basically, we are just a (local) HPC cloud service provider for our users – which of course we call customers, internally. To conclude this topic, he said something very interesting:

Dan Reed: In industry, the cost is not the main constraint, the skill is.

Ok, since we are offering HPC services on Linux and Windows, and since there was quite some buzz around the future of the Windows HPC Server product during ISC, I asked where the Windows HPC Server product is heading to in the future.

Dan Reed: The foremost goal is to better integrate and support cloud issues. For example, currently, there are two schedulers, the Azure scheduler and the traditional Windows HPC Server scheduler. Basically, that is one scheduler too much. Regarding improvements in Azure, we will see support for high-speed interconnects soon.

Azure support for MPI programs has just been introduced with Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 SP2 (a long product name, hm?). By the way, he assumes that future x GigaBit Ethernet will be favoured over InfiniBand.

For us it is clearly interesting to see where Azure, and other similar offerings, are heading to, and we can learn something from that for our own HPC service. For example, we already offer service-level agreements for some customers under some circumstances. However, on-premise resources will play the dominating role for academic HPC in the foreseeable future. Thus I am interested in the future of the product and asked specifically about the future of the Windows HPC Server.

Dan Reed: Microsoft, as a company, is strongly committed to a service-based business model. This has to be understood in order to realize what is driving some of the shifts we are seeing right now, both in the products and the organization itself. The focus on Cloud Computing elevated the HPC Server team, the Technical Computing division is now part of the Azure organization. The emphasis of the future product development thus is clearly shifting towards cloud computing, that is true, although the product remains to be improved and features will be added for a few releases (already in planning).

Well, as a MVP for Windows HPC Server, and a member of the Customer Advisory Board, I know something about the planning of upcoming product release, so I believe Microsoft is still committed to the product (as opposed to some statements made by other people during ISC). However, I do not see the Windows Server itself moving in the right direction for HPC. Obviously HPC is just a niche market for Microsoft, but better support for multi- and many-core processors and hierarchical memory architectures (NUMA !) would be desirable. Asking (again) on that, I got the following answer:

Dan Reed: Windows HPC Server is derived from Windows Server, which itself is derived from Windows. So, if you want to know where Windows HPC Server is going with regard to its base technologies, you have to see (and understand) where Windows itself is going.

Uhm, ok, so we better take a close look at Windows 8 :-). Regarding Microsoft’ way towards Cloud Computing, I will write a second blog post later to cover more of our discussion on the topics of Standards and Education. This this blog post is on the Vision, I just want to share a brief discussion we had when heading back to the ISC show floor. I asked him on his personal (!) opinion on the race towards Exascale. Will we get an Exascale system by (the end of) 2019?

Dan Reed: Given the political will and money, we will overcome the technical issues we are facing today.

Ok. Given that someone has that will and the money, would such a system be usable? Do you see any single application for such a system?

Dan Reed: Big question mark. I would rather see money being invested in solving the software issues. If we get such powerful systems, we have to be able to make use of them for more than just a single project.

Again, I am pretty much in line with that. By no means I am claiming to fully understand all challenges and opportunities of Exascale systems, but what I do see are the challenges to make use of today’s Petaflop systems with applications other than LINPACK, especially from the domain of Computational Engineering. Taking the opportunity, my last question was: Who do you guess would have the political will and the money to build an Exascale system first, the US, or Europe, or rather Asia?

Dan Reed: Uhm. If I would have to bet, I would bet on Asia. And if such a system comes from Asia, all critical system components will be designed and manufactured in Asia.

Interesting. And clearly a challenge.