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Microsoft Building FPGA-Enhanced Servers To Address Moore's Law Limits

A Microsoft Research team this week offered a glimpse of the datacenter future using programmable chips.

The team built a fabric of field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), or programmable chips, as a way of addressing the coming end of Moore's Law. The number of transistors that can be crammed into an integrated circuit, predicted to double every two years, has been flattening out in recent years, not doubling per Moore's Law. The team aimed to address the effects of that flattening on computing, power and costs in the datacenter. Their solution was to build an FPGA fabric prototype across 1,632 servers, which was tested against the computational demands of the Microsoft Bing search engine in a project called "Catapult."

The Catapult project began in 2011 with the Bing team and tested page scoring computations. Bing page scoring is a computationally intensive process that is used to rank Web sites in search results, according to a Microsoft Channel 9 interview with Doug Berger, Microsoft's director of client and cloud apps. Berger, who leads the research team that built the FPGA fabric, said that Moore's Law is expected to flatten further over the next five years.

The team was trying to solve performance and scale issues in datacenters that use standardized hardware to lower costs. The use of Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) was considered, but the power requirements of GPUs were considered "too high for conventional datacenter servers," according to the team's paper on the topic, "A Reconfigurable Fabric for Accelerating Large-Scale Datacenter Services" (PDF). The paper was presented this week at the 41st ISCA event.

The use of the FPGA fabric resulted in a 95 percent improvement in throughput over a software-only solution for performing the Bing page-ranking tasks, according to the paper. Power use increased by 10 percent with the FPGA fabric, but overall, the solution "did not exceed our 30% limit in the total cost of ownership of an individual server," the paper explains.

The FPGA fabric technology promises to either double the compute power of Microsoft's datacenters or allow it to do more with less hardware. Berger noted that by doubling the throughput, it's possible to halve the number of servers used for workloads.

While the Catapult project was just a prototype, Derek Chiou, a Bing hardware architect on the project, suggested that Microsoft will start to introduce the FPGA fabric technology for Bing search early next year.

"The strength of the pilot results have led to Bing deploying this technology in one datacenter for customers, starting in early 2015," Chiou stated, in a Microsoft Research article.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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