In an announcement that could prove to be a big blow for Intel, Microsoft committed itself to using ARM processors by Qualcomm for its cloud services. This announcement is not only a shining example of the paradigm shift but also has the potential to imperil Intel’s dominance in server technology.
Microsoft worked with Qualcomm and Cavium to develop a version of Windows Server that can run on the ARM architecture. Microsoft doesn’t plan on selling this version commercially – not yet, at least – but use internally.
The idea works, and Microsoft is testing it, as you read this, for various heavy-duty cloud-oriented tasks where managing and processing massive amounts of data at a rapid rate is a requirement.
It’s important to note that Microsoft is not testing this environment with customer-facing networks. Rather, it’s specifically for use at Microsoft, internally.
“It’s not deployed into production yet, but that is the next logical step,” says Jason Zander, Vice President of Microsoft’s Azure Cloud Division. “This is a significant commitment on behalf of Microsoft. We wouldn’t even bring something to a conference if we didn’t think this was a committed project and something that’s part of our road map.”
The ARM Future
The ARM architecture hasn’t been as powerful as Intel’s x86 or AMD’s x64 architectures, but the gap in performance is getting smaller every year, as ARM progresses.
Intel’s development has stagnated over the past few years for one reason or another. That stagnation has only helped the ARM architecture.
The upcoming Snapdragon 835 SoC by Qualcomm will be the world’s first 10nm consumer processor, beating Intel to the mark. The Snapdragon 835 also comes close to the performance of lower-end Intel consumer processors like the Core i3 processors.
But why is Microsoft focusing on the ARM architecture when it’s less powerful than Intel’s offerings? Well, simple answer: the ARM architecture is far more efficient.
In a server environment, this efficiency can prove to be extremely valuable. Since these ARM processors use less energy, they produce less heat; therefore, servers require far less cooling infrastructure.
If successful, these processors could reduce the carbon footprint of a server farm by producing less heat and thus consume much less electricity and other resources. Those savings directly translate into monetary benefits.
These benefits can then be passed onto Microsoft’s customers, giving fierce competition to the folks at Amazon and Google.
The server, designed by Microsoft, is called Project Olympus. It’s based on Qualcomm’s 10nm Centriq 2400 platform, and the list of partners working on it with Microsoft is quite hefty.
Qualcomm is involved, of course, but so are Intel and AMD. There’s also contributions from HP, Dell, and Samsung. These companies are making chips, systems, and components for the Microsoft design.
NVidia is also contributing to the project with an ‘add-in’ box for Project Olympus named HGX-1. Developed by Microsoft and NVidia, the box plugs straight into the Project Olympus server design and includes eight of NVidia’s Pascal graphics processors.
It’s also possible to link four HGX-1 boxes with NVidia’s NVLink technology. In this configuration, thirty-two Pascal graphics processors can work together simultaneously to process anything thrown at them.
The idea is to use these hyper-scale GPU accelerators with Project Olympus for very specific tasks such as artificial intelligence processing and machine learning.
Project Olympus could turn out to be a great leap forward, threatening Intel’s dominance in the server business. Or, it could be just a whimper, waiting for ARM to become more powerful.
In either case, Intel must innovate. ARM is no longer limited to smaller low-power embedded devices – it’s now threatening the very-high-end of Intel’s market share.