Innovation

New Microsoft initiative will use computing to attack global problems like volcanoes and oil spills

On Monday, Microsoft announced a new focus on high-end distributed computing to help solve global problems and serve as a testbed for Microsoft's cloud OS.

On Monday, Microsoft announced a new focus on high-end distributed computing to help solve global problems and serve as a testbed for Microsoft's cloud OS.

The program is called the Technical Computing initiative and it was announced via email from Bob Muglia, the president of Microsoft's server group.

Muglia stated:

"Recent world events clearly demonstrated our inability to process vast amounts of information and variables that would have helped to more accurately predict the behavior of global financial markets or the occurrence and impact of a volcano eruption in Iceland."

Then Muglia explained that the big leaps forwards in computing power in recent years are making new types of scientific analysis possible:

"Innovations in technology are transforming our ability to measure, monitor and model how the world behaves. The implication for scientific research is profound, and it will transform the way we tackle global challenges like health care and climate change. It will also have a huge impact on engineering and business, delivering breakthroughs that could lead to the creation of new products, new businesses and even new industries...

The challenge is that existing software tools are not optimized to harness today's computing power and data-intensive analytics software is too complex. As a result, Microsoft is making a pledge to invest in a few strategic areas to help change the equation. Here are the three areas, with quotes from Muglia about each:

  1. Technical computing to the cloud: "This platform will help ensure processing resources are available whenever they are needed-reliably, consistently and quickly."
  2. Simplify parallel development: "Parallel programs are extremely difficult to write, test and troubleshoot. However, a consistent model for parallel programming can help more developers unlock the tremendous power in today's modern computers"
  3. Develop powerful new technical computing tools and applications: "Scientists, engineers and analysts are pushing common tools (i.e., spreadsheets and databases) to the limits with complex, data-intensive models... Our development efforts will yield new, easy-to-use tools and applications that automate data acquisition, modeling, simulation, visualization, workflow and collaboration."

The end game here was also summed up by Muglia:

"One day soon, complicated tasks like building a sophisticated computer model that would typically take a team of advanced software programmers months to build and days to run, will be accomplished in a single afternoon by a scientist, engineer or analyst working at the PC on their desktop."

In terms of how Microsoft is organizing to accomplish these three goals, CNET's Ina Fried reported: "The effort, which has been quietly coming together over the past 18 months, includes a team of about 500 dedicated staff along with several hundred more from other product teams at the company. The unit will be jointly run by two Microsoft general managers—[Bill] Hilf and Kyril Faenov—and will be responsible for the high-performance computing version of Windows as well as the new efforts."

Sanity check

I tip my hat to Microsoft for using its powers for good. The stuff that they are talking about with TCT involves changing high-end computing to make it simpler for scientists and engineers to access computing power and apps they need in a much faster, more powerful way in order to solve big problems.

However, keep in mind that what Microsoft is doing is attempting to co-opt the cloud and create a new high-end platform, based on Microsoft technologies such as Azure. In essence, Microsoft is using this as a testbed for making its technologies part of the foundation of the cloud.

That could be a good thing, if Microsoft helps connect the dots and gives developers better tools for this new world of high-end computing (which is mostly dominated by Linux right now), but we should also keep a close eye on Microsoft to make sure it doesn't build it in such a way that it ultimately serves Microsoft more than the researchers.

About

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about how technology is changing the way we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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