Is Microsoft Testing Servers Running Cell-phone Chips?

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 appears to have plans to make inroads in the data center. Now I see that Microsoft 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 and 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.

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