Yesterday, an eagle-eyed reporter at EE Times noticed an interesting job on offer at Microsoft in its BING Autopilot group. According to the job ad, Bing Autopilot is responsible for designing the infrastructure behind Microsoft’s Bing search platform, and as part of its duties the group evaluates new technologies with solid state disk (SSD) and ARM processors specifically referenced. Microsoft looking at SSD technologies doesn’t come as big surprise (if you aren’t looking at SSD, you need to get with the program), but the mention of the ARM processor has certainly turned some heads.
In years past, Microsoft has been associated almost exclusively with the x86 server platform, yes there have been ports to other platforms (I’ve personally seen Windows on MIPS, Alpha, PowerPC, and CLIPPER) but they’ve all died a pretty rapid death with Itanium being the latest casualty. There has been speculation about Microsoft doing something with ARM going back at least a year but this is the first concrete indication of their interest, so the question has to be asked, what does Microsoft want ARM for?
If you look at how search engine infrastructure is built you can get a good idea. Search engines are invariably built on scale-out principles with hundreds or more likely thousands of individual servers working in concert to deliver search results. More interestingly, these servers tend to be relatively weak in terms of CPU power, they’re not using 4-socket 128-thread monsters, for the most part it’s cheap and cheerful two-socket servers with an emphasis on power efficiency and small form factor, which is where ARM comes in. ARM may not be fast compared to the latest Intel and AMD processors, but it’s wickedly efficient in terms of power consumption which brings two benefits:
- Reduced power consumption/node: if your processor operates at 10 watts instead of 50 watts, that’s a large potential saving.
- Smaller form factors: low power requirements translate to small power supplies and passive cooling both of which help designers to pack more servers in given amount of data center real estate.
What Microsoft no doubt wants to know is whether using ARM in the servers that power Bing would allow them to maintain or increase performance within a given data center power foot print. For example, if ARM enables Bing to process 10% more search requests for the same amount of power, then that’s a potentially big win.
As a footnote, if you’re getting excited about the possibility of Windows running on an ARM-based netbook, don’t hold your breath. First, we know next to nothing about the underlying software for Bing, the OS platform may not be Windows at all, it could be a kernel specifically designed to support search operations, or horror of horrors it might even be LINUX ;-) Second, even if it is Windows underneath Bing, there’s no guarantee that work done to support Bing would ever make it outside Microsoft data centers.
Posted by: Nik Simpson