Microsoft is set to give its Bing search engine a performance boost of an unconventional kind - by using programmable processors.
Big web companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook or Twitter rely on vast computing resources to provide their services to the global public on a global scale. Housed in warehouse-sized data centres, these tech giants run their software on servers - possibly millions of them. In 2013, then-CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer hinted at the scale of his company's infrastructure: "We have something over a million servers in our datacenter infrastructure," he said at the Microsoft 2013 Worldwide Partner Conference.
To meet the ever-increasing demand in processing capacity, these companies have been keeping their servers updated with the latest processors from manufacturers such as Intel as well as adding new servers to their infrastructure. This has worked well for them in the past as computer processors have continually improved in speed over time. But the rate at which server performance improves has slowed considerably - and simply plugging in new standard processors and more servers is set to prove too inefficient and costly in the future.
Researchers at Microsoft appear to be the first to take on this challenge with an unconventional approach dubbed "Catapult". Instead of operating their servers solely with standard CPUs, Microsoft researcher Doug Burger proposed a new way to increase the computing capabilities of its data centres - by using programmable processors.
"There are large challenges in scaling the performance of software now," Burger said."The question is: 'What's next?' We took a bet on programmable hardware."
Qi Lu, who is in charge of Microsoft's Bing web search engine, approved a 1,600-server pilot to implement and test Burger's proposed solution of using so-called field-programmable arrays, or FPGAs, to take on some of the computing tasks of the Bing search engine. The results of the pilot proved strong enough - a 95 percent query throughput improvement at a mere increase in power consumption of 10 percent - that Microsoft has decided to deploy the new technology in one Bing data centre for customers, starting in early 2015.
Taking such a bold and risky step could provide Microsoft with a dramatic jump in computing performance at lower cost than conventionally possible. "We are addressing two problems," Burger explained. "First, how do we keep accelerating services and reducing costs in the cloud as the performance gains from CPUs continue to flatten?" Secondly, Burger said, "we wanted to enable Bing to run computations at a scale that was not possible in software alone, for much better results at lower cost."
Microsoft Head of Research Peter Lee explained the significance of powering Bing with the new technology. "Going into production with the new technology will be a watershed moment for Bing search," Lee said, adding: "For the first time ever, the quality of Bing's page ranking will be driven not only by great algorithms but also by highly specialized hardware."
By making its bold, innovative technology move, Bing's future is set to be bright - with the dramatic increase in computing power promised by the new programmable server chips harnessed not only to speed up the search engine, but also to further enhance the ranking of its results.