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Microsoft squeezes 95% performance boost out of data centre CPUs

Redmond rescues Moore’s Law; acceleration tests show only 10% increase in power consumption

Microsoft squeezes 95% performance boost out of data centre CPUs
Microsoft’s Catapult system pairs Intel Xeon processors with FPGA (field-programmable gate array) chips for load-sharing.

Microsoft Corp engineers are set to present a method that will allow the company to double the computing capability of its data centres, The Register reported today.

This week at the International Symposium on Computer Architecture (ISCA), the researchers will present a paper called "A Reconfigurable Fabric for Accelerating Large-Scale Datacenter Services", in which they describe a system dubbed Catapault to overcome the decade-long slowdown in the improvement of single-core processing power.

In the micro-processing world, all are familiar with (co-founder of Intel Gordon) Moore's Law, which states that the number of transistors on a chip of a given size will double every 18 months. During the 90s and early years of the new century the "law" held true and led to increasingly powerful processors that were more energy efficient. But engineers have recently begun to see a plateauing of performance improvement despite packing ever-more transistors on chips.

Microsoft's Catapult works by using clusters of highly efficient, low-power FPGA (field-programmable gate array) chips attached to Intel Xeon processors and automating a process that allows the Xeons to draft the FPGA chips into service as needed. Such a twinset is rare. Even though FPGA tech is common in embedded systems it is rarely used to accelerate everyday CPUs.

According to The Register, new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, is investing heavily in large-scale data centres to position the company as a cloud champion. Boosting performance lies at the centre of his strategy. Microsoft Research plans to use the x86-FPGA pairing solution to allow data centre services such as Bing farm out common operations to the arrays.

Microsoft claims that tests on 1,632 servers showed an increased query throughput of 95%, while power consumption rose by just 10%.

"We're moving into an era of programmable hardware supporting programmable software," said Microsoft Research's Doug Burger. "We're just starting down that road now."

"Based on the results, Bing will roll out FPGA-enhanced servers in one data centre to process customer searches starting in early 2015," Bing architect Derek Chiouh said in a statement.

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