Is Microsoft ARMing for the datacenter?

Is Microsoft ARMing for the datacenter?

Summary: 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.

Topics: Data Centers, Hardware, Microsoft, Processors, Servers, Storage

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  • I don't think you are crazy

    Or, if you are, I am too. :)
    I think it's not coincidental that Singularity/Midori/Menlo all have the same roots. Midori is believed to be a concurrent, distributed OS that might end up in datacenters and/or home appliances. Menlo could be addressing those same markets, perhaps. Or maybe Midori is for datacenters and Menlo for "mobile devices" but both share Singularity as their common "parent"... Just guesses on my part. MJ
    Mary Jo Foley
    • It makes sense today

      5 years ago, energy was a concern, but not an enormous one as it is today. The fact that hardware gets cheaper and faster every year is one thing, but today it seems like energy prices can make the cost of running it more expensive then the savings of the new hardware.
      John Zern
  • They dont need a new OS for that

    Havent you heard of minwin or windows embedded? they can pick and choose just the pieces needed to run bing and no more. Of course if it takes longer than the next 8 months or so then there will be intel chips available that are just as low power as ARM but at least they'll have a choice...
    Johnny Vegas
  • Why reinvent the wheel?

    Here is one thing that came to my poor bloated mind.<br><br>Without any idea to troll, let me say that MSFT is unfortunately known since over 20 years to deliver poor performing solutions both in the OS and application areas.<br><br>Its a fact that was heavily promoted by the [un]famous not so secret WinTel alliance for the benefit of both the 2 companies. <br><br>Every 18 months or so, the chipset maker produced more efficient pieces when the software publisher delivered more mastodon solutions, giving for each new steps no more overall performance but a purportedly new user ease of use. Period.<br><br>However, that Gates-Moore pseudo law came to an end few years ago when the chipmaker was unable to raise the CPU frequency anymore, developing then multi core CPUs that very few are still able to use correctly (yep, parallel programming is a new paradigm that is not so easy to learn and further that is not always usable for all purposes).<br><br>Furthermore, the energy cost to run these new systems (CPU, DDR3, high speed bus, etc. new OS and elephant GUI) at their maximum is very high, and the ecologic print of this cost cant be economically accepted anymore, especially for the use of tens of thousands servers.<br><br>Then came ARM with a very low consuming CPU approach (if Im correct, a Cortex 9A single core at 800 MHz uses less than 0.4 watt).<br><br>If such chipsets should be used in a server farm, why not use a Lite distribution of Linux (without any GUI that you dont need to administrate any kind of server) that is proven to be safer and more efficient than any WinXXX solution.<br><br>License purchase cost: zero even for MSFT.<br>Development cost: zero even forMSFT.<br>Maintenance cost: no more than for any other OS.<br>Electricity bill: divide the cost by near 1000 (when including all the relevant costs such as cooling, space, etc.).<br><br>So, such a solution works as of today.<br><br>But (and there is still a but), what application server to use within such an environment?<br><br>IIS: Nope not available on Linux and very difficult to port within such a short timeframe.<br><br>Apache: Forget The worst performing solution.<br><br>Glassfish: No way too pricy and poor performance.<br><br>Rock: No more pricy like Glassfish but just performing a little bit better.<br><br>So which one?<br><br>And what about a brand new revolutionary and free web application server named G-WAN from Trustleap?<br><br>Ive discovered this real jewel (a complete code of ~100 Kb) lately and am still amazed by the rocket flying performances of this new comer.<br><br>Would you be interested to see some benchmarks that compare G-WAN to the 2009 WebSpec winners that you just have to go on the Trustleaps web site at <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a></a>.<br><br>Let me know if its a dream or if that may be "THE" next revolution in the cloud area.<br><br>However, being now quite close (but not an insider) from Trustleap by using G-WAN for my own needs, I guess that a bunch of old fashionable hardware makers wont be so happy to discover that G-WAN will help their customers to reduce the number of servers they need to do their job in a ratio of 10 up to 100 or even more.<br><br>Meanwhile, let see how large users will appreciate "doing more with less" if doing such hard cut in their hardware and license expenses when (due to both the current financial crisis that is not over and the upcoming planed energy cost explosion) their IT budgets will melt like snow in the sun.<br><br>I'd like to get the point of view of both Marie-Jo and David about such an idea.<br><br>Just my 2 cents.
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