Microsoft Bets Its Future on a Reprogrammable Computer Chip — from


Burger, a computer chip researcher who had joined the company four years earlier, was pitching a new idea to the execs. He called it Project Catapult.

The tech world, Burger explained, was moving into a new orbit. In the future, a few giant Internet companies would operate a few giant Internet services so complex and so different from what came before that these companies would have to build a whole new architecture to run them. They would create not just the software driving these services, but the hardware, including servers and networking gear. Project Catapult would equip all of Microsoft’s servers—millions of them—with specialized chips that the company could reprogram for particular tasks.

Today, the programmable chips that Burger and Lu believed would transform the world—called field programmable gate arrays—are here. FPGAs already underpin Bing, and in the coming weeks, they will drive new search algorithms based on deep neural networks—artificial intelligence modeled on the structure of the human brain—executing this AI several orders of magnitude faster than ordinary chips could. As in, 23 milliseconds instead of four seconds of nothing on your screen. FPGAs also drive Azure, the company’s cloud computing service. And in the coming years, almost every new Microsoft server will include an FPGA. That’s millions of machines across the globe. “This gives us massive capacity and enormous flexibility, and the economics work,” Burger says. “This is now Microsoft’s standard, worldwide architecture.”

It’s a typical tangle of tech acronyms. CPUs. GPUs. TPUs. FPGAs. But it’s the subtext that matters. With cloud computing, companies like Microsoft and Google and Amazon are driving so much of the world’s technology that those alternative chips will drive the wider universe of apps and online services. Lee says that Project Catapult will allow Microsoft to continue expanding the powers of its global supercomputer until the year 2030. After that, he says, the company can move toward quantum computing.