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Is Microsoft Testing Servers Running Cell-phone Chips?

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Microsoft may be testing ARM-based servers in addition to solid-state storage drives for its online services division — which operates sites like Bing — ostensibly in an effort to drive down energy costs without sacrificing performance. Just last week I wrote about a stealthy startup that uses the ARM-based architecture commonly found inside cell phones to deliver lower-power servers, and detailed how ARM plc (s armh) appears to have plans to make inroads in the data center. Now I see that Microsoft (s msft) has a job listing on its site for a software development engineer that reads:

To provide sufficient server and networking capacity, the Autopilot Hardware team is involved in Data Center planning, new hardware expirementation [sic] including SSD and ARM, vendor relationships, delivery and installation, network management, and the development of software to automate provisioning and management of all hardware pieces in the dependency chain.

Is this a huge win for ARM in the server business? No, most likely it’s Microsoft doing what any company with a gargantuan number of servers (Microsoft says hundreds of thousands) would do — which is test out all possible ways to cut down on energy usage. Last year, I wrote about the energy savings Microsoft experienced while using Intel’s low-power Atom-based processors inside its servers.

However, its willingness to experiment with servers that use the ARM architecture found inside cell phones rather than the x86 architecture that Intel (s intc) and AMD (s amd) chips use is worth noting. Microsoft’s current data center strategy involves a manufacturing-line model where it uses a well-established supply chain and commodity parts that it can source easily and quickly in order to build data centers anywhere in the world as fast as possible. That’s not a data center operations model that’s going to support swapping out x86 servers for a specialized box running cell-phone chips anytime soon.

Perhaps we’ll hear more about putting cell-phone chips in servers to cut back on energy consumption in the data center at our Green Net conference on April 29, when Bill Weihl, Google’s green energy czar, gives a presentation on how Google is innovating around energy use in its data centers (GigaOM Pro sub req’d). We’ll see then if Intel or AMD should be worried about their largest business lines — the sale of server chips — shrinking.

12 Responses to “Is Microsoft Testing Servers Running Cell-phone Chips?”

  1. Stacey – I think you are thinking about this the right way and there are a few startups (Smooth Stone and SeaMicro, who you have also written about come to mind) working in this area.

    For many front-end web workloads you don’t need the power and energy consumption of the dual-core and quad-core Intel chipsets. You can do much of these activities with processors from ARM and the Intel Atom, save lots of money of power and cooling and not sacrifice web performance.

    The ironic thing that is happening these days in data centers is that people are deploying quad-core power hungry, high performance processors for many front-end web activities because the hardware is relatively inexpensive. Then, when they discover that the hardware is overkill for the task, they use virtualization to divide up the processor into slices that are relevant for the task. The problem is that the power and cooling bills keep growing driving up operational costs.

    If people deployed the right processor for the task initially then they might find that the operational costs are kept under control and the processor is more than sufficient for the web workload.

  2. I ran my personal website on my phone until Nokia shutdown the gateway aspect of the service earlier this year; to see a company, even MS, going this route makes sense for efficiency and future growth on their part. It might also justify what some have been saying for years about mobiles being as powerful as larger PCs.