Microsoft catapults datacenter performance with FPGAs

Gamers and content creators are not alone in their frustration with the last decade's slowing increases in CPU performance. Massive datacenter operators like Microsoft are coming up with new ways to increase server performance using unconventional hardware. Microsoft in particular is upgrading 34 datacenters around the world with field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) in an operation the software giant calls "Project Catapult."

Microsoft says its researchers have been planning these upgrades since 2010 and have done pilot rollouts since 2012. The company says it evaluated GPUs and application-specific integration circuits (ASICs) as well as FPGAs in its acceleration research. Microsoft claims its FPGA deployment strategy results in a performance increase of an order of magnitude compared to CPUs, with a comparatively modest 30% increase in cost and 10% increase in total power consumption. Wired reports a 40-fold performance increase compared to a CPU when running Bing algorithms.

Microsoft's "acceleration fabric" deployment strategy calls for the distributed integration of FPGAs into nearly every new box in their datacenters rather than a concentration of many FPGAs into a smaller pool of servers. For that purpose, Microsoft is using Stratix V D5 FPGA daughtercards from Altera inside Intel Xeon-based machines. Intel completed its purchase of Altera for $16.7 billion in cash and shares at the end of December 2015. Microsoft researchers are surely drooling at the prospect of using rumored Xeons with on-package FPGAs in the future.

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