Microsoft is planning to use programmable chips to boost the performance of the servers for its Bing search engine, by accelerating certain services using these devices. The project, called Catapult, used field-programmable gate arrays, or FPGAs, which as the name suggests can be configured by customers on the field after they are manufactured. FPGAs are now seen as powerful computing devices in their own right, which can be used for accelerating certain programmable tasks, researchers working on the project said. The new approach is likely to be important for compute-intensive services like Bing as Microsoft can now selectively speed up large-scale services, such as its ranking throughput, by adding FPGA compute boards to servers, rather than buy more hardware and CPUs to run the workloads.
Microsoft researchers have been experimenting with using field-programmable gate array (FPGA) processors in an attempt to make its datacenters more efficient. Researchers collaborated with Microsoft’s Bing team to test a pilot of “Catapult,” which is a programmable hardware/software “fabric” on more than 1,600 Microsoft datacenter servers running Intel Xeon processors and Altera FPGA chips. The goal of the pilot was to see if FPGA-enhanced servers could provide faster, better quality search results at a lower cost. The answer, it turned out, was yes, and now Microsoft is planning to roll out FPGA-enhanced, Bing-powered servers to process customer searches starting in early 2015. “The system takes search queries coming from Bing and offloads a lot of the work to the FPGAs, which are custom-programmed for the heavy computational work needed to figure out which webpages results should be displayed in which order,” as Wired explains in its write-up about the new technology. According to MSR Director of Client & Cloud Apps, Doug Burger, who is heading up the pilot, the FPGAs are 40 times faster than a CPU at processing Bing’s custom algorithms, and the overall system will be twice as fast as Bing’s existing datacenter system. Microsoft will be able to chop the number of servers it is using to dish up these Bing queries by half, as a result.