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Search engine Bing turns to FPGAs for help

Posted: 13 Aug 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Bing? Baidu? Andrew Putnam? FPGA?

Microsoft will use FPGA cards in its new servers to run its Bing search engine next year. The company is also expected to make these cards a standard part of the million servers in its data centres.

That's the goal for Andrew Putnam, part of a Microsoft Research that led to the current use of FPGAs for Bing. In talks at the annual Hot Chips event, Putman and an engineer from China's search giant Baidu described their parallel efforts.

FPGAs afford server boosts in datacentres
Bing is rolling out Stratix-based fabric on servers to accelerate processing of customer searches, an approach that Microsoft revealed to improve ranking server throughput by 95 per cent.

FPGAs are not a natural fit for cost-sensitive data centres, but it turns out they make sense. "We started out focusing on Bing which needed help because it was not fast enough, not that we wanted to get FPGAs in the data centrewe looked at software, then GPUs, and then FPGAs," said Putnam in an interview with EE Times.

Putnam's team would up building a 10cm x10cm card using a Stratix V FPGA with 8GB memory. It slots into the standard server Microsoft's data centre uses, drawing 25W from its PCI Express Gen 3 slot.

 Catapult board with an Altera Stratix V

The Catapult board with an Altera Stratix V will help run Microsoft Bing in 2015.

The team also created special cabling to create a 6x8 Torus network to link all the FPGAs in a rack. It enables services run across multiple FPGAs and accessed without going through host server CPUs and their network.

In a pilot using 1,632 servers, the approach doubled throughput for Bing while adding less than 30 per cent of the cost of the server. "That means we could use half the number of servers to do Bing," said Putnam, a huge savings for cost-sensitive data centres.

That paved the way for use of the Catapult cards in Microsoft's new production servers running Bing, starting next year. "Retrofitting existing servers is really difficult and that's true of FPGAs or whatever," he said, noting the effort and risk of changing such massive underlying hardware.

The FPGAs accelerate the ranking of search terms, a new partition of the overall search job. "Bing and its 30,000 lines of gnarly code wasn't a natural fit for FPGAs," but his team has found other more natural Microsoft data centre apps for its cards.


Putnam shows the Catapult board and the Microsoft server it plugs into.

Putting more P into FPGAs

 Catapult uses a network of directly linked FPGAs.

Catapult uses a network of directly linked FPGAs.

"Getting FPGAs into the data centre is one thing but keeping them there is another," said Putnam.

FPGAs are getting there in terms of being more amenable for compute operations, but to keep FPGAs there we need to improve their amount of programmability. The FPGA tools are too slow, there are too many warnings and not great debuggingbut that's not new.

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