Microsoft Boosts Bing Search Speed Via Custom Chips

Stephen Yagielowicz

LOS ANGELES — Microsoft has announced its adoption of a new technology for blinding fast search speeds, called “Catapult,” which the company hopes will put its Bing search engine into the market leadership role.

The move is the result of a looming technological brick wall, where the speed of traditional processor architectures is topping out — requiring innovation in order to surpass current performance thresholds — innovation that is coming in the form of new chipsets called FPGAs.

According to semiconductor industry leader Xilinx.com, Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) are semiconductor devices based around a matrix of configurable logic blocks (CLBs) that interface through programmable interconnects. FPGAs are reprogrammable for specific functions after manufacturing, distinguishing FPGAs from the common Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) that are custom manufactured for specific tasks.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency miners, among other users, will be familiar with the use of ASIC based devices specifically designed to harvest digital coins, for example. FPGAs take this form of specialization a step further by allowing a rewrite of the chip’s instruction set to accommodate evolving uses.

As an indicator of the performance gains to be had from FPGAs, Microsoft’s new approach delivers a 40x boost in speed when processing its custom Bing algorithms over the use of standard CPUs, with the new system delivering search results twice as quickly as Bing’s current system.

“There’s not a whole lot of revolution left in CPUs,” AMD CTO Joe Macri told The Register. “[But] there’s a lot of evolution left.”

Reportedly, Microsoft may be able to reduce the size of Bing’s existing server farm, cutting the number of servers it uses by 50 percent or more — while still enjoying a substantial performance lift. This large reduction in overhead expenses will put the firm on a more solid financial footing as it moves to being a “cloud first” company.

For example, Microsoft reports that in a recent test, it was able to boost query throughput 95 percent, with only a negligible 10 percent in power consumption.

“We’re moving into an era of programmable hardware supporting programmable software,” Microsoft Research’s Doug Burger stated. “We’re just starting down that road now.”

Microsoft penned a paper for the International Symposium on Computer Architecture, entitled, “A Reconfigurable Fabric for Accelerating Large-Scale Datacenter Services,” which seeks to explain the tech giant’s response to the decline in improvement potential for single-core clock-rates, through the adoption of FPGAs.

Microsoft’s Bing search engine has spurred recent discussions in adult webmaster circles, where its use may provide at least a partial replacement for declining Google visitor volume. Adding one more plus to the list of reasons why this strategy may make sense is the upcoming massive performance increase that will no doubt improve the service’s popularity with consumers.

The FPGA-enhanced Bing search engine architecture is set to launch next year. 

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