Is Microsoft ARMing for the datacenter?

Could Microsoft be considering the ARM processor for their next-generation datacenters along with a new operating system?

When I talk to Microsoft about datacenter issues I get the expected information regarding virtualization, consolidation, Windows Server 2008 R2, desktop and application virtualization, and some discussion of their PAC hardware plans.  I have to admit that I hadn't thought to ask about their Bing plans; it's not something that is usually on my radar.

But reading Mary-Jo Foley's blog yesterday about Microsoft Menlo, with its mention of the (apparently) long discarded LongARM project suddenly put a story I read last month in EE Times into context for me. The EE Times editor had noticed that a job opening on the Microsoft Bing Autopilot Team mentioned that there would be responsibilities for utilizing new hardware, including ARM.   If you're wonder exactly what the Autopilot team is, it's described as follows

"The Bing Autopilot Team designs and builds the software infrastructure that powers more than 100,000 servers and provides core platform services for a variety of online applications in the Online Service Division."

My natural inclination was to simply think that these servers were running some form of Windows Server, though Microsoft has never come out and described the Bing server infrastructure in detail. But the job description continues with

"To provide sufficient server and networking capacity, the Autopilot Hardware team is involved in Data Center planning, new hardware experimentation including SSD and ARM..."

Ok. ARM processors are used in a number of different devices you will find in a datacenter, including disk controllers. But after reading Mary-Jo's comments on Windows Embedded Compact I recalled that Windows CE (as WEC was formerly known) already runs on the ARM processor, and if Microsoft was looking to stress test a stripped-down operating system, something like Bing is clearly the place to do it. And Microsoft certainly does have a history of using their internal networks and servers as test beds for pre-release software as well as things that never see the commercial light of day.

But what made me think that running datacenter servers on the ARM processor might be the case was another innocuous sentence in that same job posting

"Help us build Microsoft's platform for data center computing and drive cost per machine below our key competitors for the same quality."

One would think that Bing's key competitor has to be Google, and Google, while they don't talk about the specifics of the individual computers in their datacenters, is known to be running custom, stripped down, no frills, servers. If Microsoft is looking to do more than just emulate that idea, then suddenly the possibility of some form of micro-kernel based OS running on the low-power consuming ARM processors, deployed in the tens of thousands, suddenly makes a lot of sense. Other folks have talked about Microsoft's interest in ARM processors, but glossed over the fact that Microsoft would need a new operating system to do so.

No one has ever said that Microsoft is only allowed to develop general purpose operating systems.  In a cloud -driven IT universe, special purpose servers dedicated, for example,  to a search engine, or a database, or to delivering virtualized desktop applications, makes a lot of sense, especially if you can sit all of those special purpose servers on top of fast, efficient micro-kernel that uses every erg of computing power from mesh networks of thousands of energy-efficient, relatively fast, multi-core ARM processors.

If you think I'm nuts, feel free to let me, and the world, know it.  But before you dismiss this possibility out of hand, take a step back and consider the marketplace, Microsoft's rapidly gathering head of steam in pursuing cloud computing, and the quality of the work that has come out of Microsoft Research.


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