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Making Inroads in Life Science HPC Market, Microsoft Plans to Launch Bio Developer Site

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Less than a year after releasing its first version of Windows for the high-performance computing market, Microsoft has exceeded its sales goals for the Windows Computer Cluster Server, company officials told BioInform this week.
 
Microsoft identified the life sciences sector as an early adopter for the technology before it launched CCS [BioInform 11-15-04], and appears to have established a foothold in the market since releasing it last June. The company now includes among CCS customers the Computational Bioinformatics and Bioimaging Laboratory at Virginia Tech, the University of Cincinnati Genome Research Institute, and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.  
 
The response has emboldened the company to try to further strengthen its ties with the life science HPC community by releasing a version of its Microsoft Developer Network website that is targeted to software developers in the pharmaceutical and life science market.
 
“We’re releasing an MSDN site specifically for life science developers in the next 30 days,” Paul Mattes, industry solutions director for Microsoft’s pharmaceutical and life sciences group, told BioInform.
 
“We’re going to have the site tiered out by different value chain components in the pharmaceutical and life sciences enterprise, and we’re going to use that as a vehicle to communicate with ISVs, customers, and partners,” he said. “If you’re developing applications in the life sciences space and there are particular regulatory or other constraints that you have and a framework that you need to work in, [the site will explain] how you can best do that using Microsoft tools.”
 
Mattes said that when Microsoft began to target the healthcare and life sciences market around five years ago, “there were five people within the organization that had anything to do with healthcare and life sciences.” Now, he said, “there are north of 600, so it’s been a big area of investment for us.”
 
Microsoft recently sponsored a study by market research firm IDC to examine the market opportunity for high-performance computing in the life sciences. IDC estimated that the market for life science server sales was $1.4 billion worldwide in 2005, and is projected to grow 9.1 percent per year through 2010 to reach $2.2 billion.
 
The study concluded that the strongest growth potential in the life science HPC market will be in discovery and basic research, “with use in the biotechnology industry presenting the best opportunity for new HPC growth.”
 
Patrick O’Rourke, senior manager of Microsoft’s Windows server division, said that Microsoft has “exceeded our goals to date worldwide” for CCS, and that the majority of sales have been in the range of 8-node to 128-node clusters — departmental and group deployments that the company had previously identified as its core customer base for the product [BioInform 06-09-06].
 
“Our entrance into high-performance computing is not focused on megaflops and speeds and feeds,” O’Rourke said, noting that the company views ease of use as its primary selling point in the marketplace.
 
“We want HPC to become a pervasive resource within companies,” he said. “Something that is as easy to use and locate as printers are today.”
 

“We wanted to move away from the core facility approach and enable people to work directly with the computer clusters.”

Early customer experiences in the life science market appear to bear out that strategy. In a case study on the University of Cincinnati Genome Research Institute, Matt Wortman, director of computational biology and information technology, said that moving from a mixed HPC environment to Windows simplified administration tasks for the institute.
 
He estimated that there were only around 15 active users of GRI’s Unix and Linux systems, who regularly ran computational jobs for around 60 other users who did not know how to use those operating systems.
 
“We wanted to move away from the core facility approach and enable people to work directly with the computer clusters,” he said in a statement.
 
Last March, GRI installed CCS on a seven-node cluster, and now plans to expand the cluster to 14 nodes. Researchers at the center have ported around eight different in-house programs from Linux to Windows using the Visual Studio 2005 development platform.
 
According to the IDC report, Linux is the dominant operating system for the HPC market, with 73.2 percent market share. Unix is next with 14.3 percent of the market, and Windows claims 12.4 percent. IDC projected that over the next 18 months, both Linux and Windows will eat into Unix’s share to claim 76 percent and 14 percent of the market, respectively.
 
O’Rourke said this projection is not surprising. “We have seen a mix of customers who have adopted Windows Compute Cluster Server to augment their Linux high-performance computing applications, meaning they’re not getting rid of their Linux ones. They’re just using Windows in addition to it and making it interoperable.”
 
Nevertheless, IDC warned in its study that “significant effort may be required to transition from the current HPC platform (probably Linux) to the Microsoft CCS solution.”
 
On the other hand, IDC noted, Microsoft’s dominance on the desktop could work in its favor in the HPC market. “Companies with a significant Windows presence should have an easier transition, which could also provide a marketing driver,” the study said. 

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