Where Windows is #2 to Linux

September 24, 2008 12:36 PM EDT
Microsoft encourages us to think of Linux, when we think of it as all, as an also-ran operating systems for nerds. The last thing Microsoft wants us to think about is that there are some spaces where Microsoft is a distant number two and Linux is on top. Too bad Microsoft, there are several such places. One such is HPC (High Performance Computing).

At HPC's very highest end, supercomputers, Linux rules. The first computer to bust the petaflop, 1.0 quadrillion calculations per second, barrier? IBM's Roadrunner supercomputer running Linux. Out of the Top 500 supercomputers in the world, over 80% of them are running Linux.

Better still, Linux manages to pull this off by largely using off-the-shelf components unlike the supercomputers of years gone by. Instead of specialized hardware, the Roadrunner uses AMD Opteron and Sony, Toshiba and IBM's Cell processors. Yes, that's the same Cell CPU that's inside your Sony PlayStation 3.

Linux has been making the most from the least in supercomputing since 1994, when Thomas Sterling and Don Becker, at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's CESDIS (Center of Excellence in Space Data and Information Sciences) created the first Beowulf Linux-powered clustered supercomputer. That first system, which was made up of 16 486-DX4 processors connected by channel bonded Ethernet, proved you could deliver supercomputing performance with COTS (Commodity off the Shelf) based systems. I've always regretted that I had left Goddard several years earlier so I never had a chance to get my name into a footnote of supercomputing and Linux history.

HPC's real bread and butter isn't supercomputers though. It's managing, or trying to manage the madness that is the financial markets. Wall Street runs on Linux. Almost all the major financial markets rely, to one extent or another, on Linux.

For example, the CME (Chicago Mercantile Exchange) Group, the world's largest derivatives exchange, just joined the Linux Foundation. Solaris is also a major player in the world's markets.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is probably best known for its colossal failure on the London Stock Exchange. What made this especially ironic was that Microsoft has made the London Exchange's decision to go with a .NET and Windows Server 2003 solution part of its "Get the Facts" anti-Linux campaign including ads with fake headlines from the "The Highly Reliable Times."

Despite that flop, Microsoft is continuing to try to prove that it has Wall Street cred as a real HPC player. In its latest attempt, Microsoft is making no bones that Windows HPC Server 2008, scheduled to be released on Nov. 1st, will try to challenge Linux in HPC on Wall Street.

I'm not terribly worried about it. When you talk about really high-end performance, you talk about Linux, Solaris and AIX, maybe HP-UX or VMS, or even z/OS on a mainframe. Windows? Windows isn't even in the conversation. Anyone who knows anything about HPC, which it seems didn't include the IT staffers at the London Stock Exchange knows this.

Someone, somewhere out there may have used HPC Server 2008's predecessor, Windows CCS (Compute Cluster Server) 2003, but I've never met them. HPC Server 2008 will probably have more users than CCS, but probably not that many more.

After all, while HPC Server 2008 talks a good game with high-speed networking, cluster management tools, advanced failover capabilities, etc., etc., let's face it. It's still Windows. People may be willing to put up with a blue screen of death on their PC. I don't think stock brokers will be so patient when an entire exchange goes down especially in a market as volatile as this one is. After all, as the London Times reported today, numerous rivals are popping up to challenge the London Stock Exchange, and, in part, that's because of the Exchange's Windows-based system failures.

No, when it comes to big-time finances, Linux and Solaris are on top and Windows is an also-ran and it's going to stay that way.