Microsoft has been running its Windows Server OS on ARM-based processors made by Qualcomm and Cavium.
Microsoft will begin using ARM-based servers in its Azure cloud, in a significant move that takes it beyond using Intel x86 chips in its datacenters.
Microsoft has been testing its Windows Server OS on ARM-based servers made by Qualcomm and Cavium, using the machines to run search, storage, machine-learning and big data-related tasks.
Dr Leendert van Doorn, distinguished engineer for Microsoft Azure, revealed the move at the 2017 Open Compute Project Summit in Santa Clara today.
"We feel ARM servers represent a real opportunity and some Microsoft cloud services already have future deployment plans on ARM servers," he wrote ahead of the conference.
"We have been running evaluations side by side with our production workloads and what we see is quite compelling.
"The high Instruction Per Cycle (IPC) counts, high core and thread counts, the connectivity options and the integration that we see across the ARM ecosystem are very exciting and continues to improve."
While there is no word when these processors will be deployed in production, Jason Zander, vice president of Microsoft's Azure cloud division, told Bloomberg it would be happening. At present, Microsoft doesn't seem to be making a version of Windows Server that runs on ARM-based processors available externally.
The move poses a potential challenge to Intel's dominance of the server market, with Intel estimating its processors are inside 98 percent of the machines underpinning cloud services. Last year Intel's Data Center Group reported $17.2bn sales and $7.5bn operating profit, and as PC sales dwindle, the server market is core to the chip giant.
The use of ARM-based processors in Microsoft Azure is significant, in that the platform is the world's second largest cloud infrastructure. Amazon Web Services (AWS), the world's largest cloud infrastructure provider, already produces ARM-based chips, with speculation that these will find a use in cloud datacenters, where they would complement, rather than replace, Intel-based servers.
More than nine out of 10 of the world's smartphones run on ARM-based processors, which rose to prominence for their low power use relative to their performance.
Despite ARM-based servers being available for more than five years, they have failed to make a significant impact on the datacenter market, possibly as a result of Intel lowering the energy consumption of its processors in recent years and introducing its low-power Atom processors to the server market.
But Casey Axe, ARM's senior director for ARM server systems and ecosystems, argues that today's offerings represent a stronger challenge to Intel.
"The ARM ecosystem has stepped up to this challenge with diverse choices that deliver leading-edge single-threaded performance, single SoCs [systems-on-a-chip] with 100 highly-efficient cores and solutions uniquely designed for integrated network and storage offload."
A wide range of SoC processors based on ARM designs is available, and Axe believes that the choice of specialist hardware will prove attractive to cloud platform holders looking for hardware optimized for specific workloads.
Microsoft demoed Windows Server running on Qualcomm's ARM-based 10nm Centriq 2400 processor, available with up to 48 cores, which is sampling now and expected to be commercially available in the second half of 2017.
On show at the Summit was the 1U Qualcomm Centriq 2400 motherboard, which will be scaleable, fit into a 19-inch rack and be suited to big data and other memory-intensive workloads, according to Qualcomm. The specs are below.
Microsoft also revealed that its open-source Project Olympus server and rack, will work with a number of motherboards, including those running Qualcomm's Centriq 2400 and another ARM-based offering from Cavium, as well as x86 chips from Intel.
Following the announcement, an Intel spokesman said: "We are confident that Xeon processors will continue to deliver the highest performance and lowest total cost of ownership for our cloud customers. However, we understand the desire of our customers to evaluate other product offerings."
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