Q&A: Microsoft's Hilf Sees HPC as the Killer Azure App

Bill Hilf, general manager for technical computing at Microsoft, launched Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 in a keynote address at the High Performance Computing Financial Markets conference in New York. In an interview following his presentation, Hilf explained why he believes this release will help bring HPC to a broader audience.

Can you explain the Windows Azure support? Are you talking about a new iteration of Azure that is an HPC-type instance?
What you are seeing is native Azure with an HPC service on it so we're able to deploy from the scheduler on premise to Azure. We have the ability on the Azure side to say, 'Ah you're trying to send me an HPC job, and I need to go do something.' Technically, you can have only one head-node (the scheduler) on premise and have all your stuff up on Azure if you want to. But for a lot of these financial services customers they already have thousands of servers. They may want to add a couple of more, situationally.

So you're not talking about a new Azure service?
Correct. We don't have a separate cluster on Azure.

Are you seeing customers doing this yet?
This is part of our shipping product right now, so we're just bringing this to life. We have a lot of customers very interested in it. A lot of large customers have been asking us, that's what drove us to do this. I believe the technical computing workload will be the killer Azure app because the nature of these workloads consume a ton of computers. We believe having an infrastructure with hundreds of thousands of servers is going to be very compelling.

"I believe the technical computing workload will be the killer Azure app." -- Bill Hilf, general manager for technical computing, Microsoft

Won't issues with compliance and security be show stoppers for Wall Street clients?
There's literally a list of issues related to data and security and all of this and we are approaching them, the whole situation, looking at what makes more sense. There are some cases where, for regulatory and security, maybe national defense reasons, people will never use the public cloud. That's why we announced the Azure appliance. Most of those customers of Azure appliances will be HPC customers because you're buying 1,000 servers at a time.

What's the pricing of the new HPC Server with Azure?
The way it works is you buy HPC Server and it has the technology inside to do this, and then you go and get your Azure subscriptions which is just normal Azure pricing.

To what extent do you see HPC becoming more mainstream than it has to date?
That's our fundamental strategy. That's fundamentally why we exist, so the way to make it mainstream is you have to make the apps very simple, so it's almost like a VisualBasic or PHP application that will take advantage of it and make it so the IT stuff in the back is almost invisible. That's why the Excel support is really powerful. When you see this tab that we have in Excel, you're able to say 'Hey, just go run this. I don't know anything about HPC in the back, I don't even know what a server is. You can just use Excel, but I know it's a big complicated computation, just go do it,' and so that kind of batteries behind the scene is our strategy to help mainstream it. We think the cloud has huge potential to mainstream HPC.

Do you see it going beyond financial services?
Oh yes. I talk to manufacturing customers, oil and gas customers, life sciences companies, there's a lot of government interest. The fundamental issue remains in every industry, they've got 100 smart people that are building the most complicated models, but all the CIOs I talk to say the same thing: 'If I could have 5,000 people being able to do what these guys do, I could make drugs faster, find more information to trade on, whatever it may be.' The idea of opening up to a broader set of end users is key.

What initiatives do you have to reach out to your implementation partners and system integrators?
We are super close with a lot of them from ISVs to SIs to resellers on what we're doing. There are a lot of very vertical specific applications that we won't go build. Pick an industry and we're working with the top five ISVs in each industry so they can take advantage of this stuff underneath to make it easier for them.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.


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