Qualcomm muscles into Microsoft Azure and the Open Compute Platform

Microsoft has been showing off its Project Olympus server platform at the Open Compute Summit, and giving Intel headaches in the process. On show were ARM-based data center servers using Qualcomm and Cavium silicon, and AMD timed the unveil of its new Naples server chip accordingly.

With the machine learning and AI markets increasingly focusing on GPU technology, rather than Intel’s optimized processor approach, the market leader is facing an unprecedented challenge to its huge dominance of the server processor space. It will be most vulnerable in new markets for servers, such as Cloud-RAN, where it does not have an established presence; and in the open source platforms on which traditional customers like Microsoft are focusing to reduce their costs.

Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform is a huge customer for Intel chips, and to see it exploring alternative processing options so openly will have caused some consternation at the incumbent. While the ARM version of Windows Server is still an internal build, the Project Olympus’ Open Compute hardware is an open source reference design that Microsoft is hoping will shake up the market.

The two ARM servers on show were based on Qualcomm’s new Centriq 2400 CPU, with 48 cores at a 10nm die-size; and one a Cavium motherboard housing its ThunderX2 ARMv8-A, a 54-core CPU. Currently, Microsoft says it is using the systems in its own data centers, running certain internal applications for which ARM systems are best suited.

Microsoft says these internal cloud applications include “search and indexing, storage, databases, big data and machine learning”. The firm hopes to speed up these cloud workloads using ARM processors. Leendert van Doorn, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft, wrote in blog post: “The demand for cloud services continues to grow at a dramatic pace and as a result we are always innovating and looking out for technology disruptions that can help us scale more rapidly. We see one such disruption taking shape in the silicon manufacturing industry. The economic slowdown of Moore’s Law and the tremendous scale of the high end smartphone market has expanded the number of processor suppliers leading to a ‘Cambrian’ explosion of server options.”

Microsoft has been part of OCP since 2014, and Project Olympus already uses x86-based Intel Xeon chips too. Qualcomm will now join the OCP, originally established by Facebook, and will donate the specs of its cloud board.

The Centriq 2400 will be commercially available later this year and will be targeting cloud servers, including telco data centers and Cloud-RAN, among other markets.