ARMing the Cloud; Qualcomm's Centriq 2400 Platform will power Microsoft Azure instances

Subject: General Tech, Systems | March 8, 2017 - 12:20 PM |
Tagged: qualcomm, OCP, microsoft, falkor, centriq 2400, azure, arm, 10nm

Last December Qualcomm announced plans to launch their Centriq 2400 series of platforms for data centres, demonstrating Apache Spark and Hadoop on Linux as well as a Java demo.  They announced a 48 Core design based on ARM v8 and fabbed with on Samsung's 10nm process, which will compete against Intel's current offerings for the server room.

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Today marks the official release of the Qualcomm Falkor CPU and Centriq 2400 series of products, as well as the existence of a partnership with Microsoft which may see these products offered to Azure customers.  Microsoft has successfully configured a version of Windows Server to run on these new chips, which is rather big news for customers looking for low powered hosting solutions running a familiar OS.  The Centriq 2400 family is compliant with Microsoft's Project Olympus architecture, used by the Open Compute Project Foundation to offer standardized building blocks upon which you can design a data centre from scratch or use as an expansion plan.

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Enough of the background, we are here for the specifications of the new platform and what can be loaded onto a Centriq 2400.  The reference motherboard supports SOCs of up to 48 cores, with both single and dual socket designs announced.  Each SOC can support up to six channels of DDR4 in either single or dual channel configurations with a maximum of 768GB installed.  Falkor will offer 32 lanes of PCIe 3.0, eight SATA ports and a GbE ethernet port as well as USB and a standard 50Gb/s NIC.  NVMe is supported, one design offers 20 NVMe drives with a PCIe 16x slot but you can design the platform to match your requirements.  Unfortunately they did not discuss performance during their call, nor any suggested usage scenarios.  We expect to hear more about that during the 2017 Open Compute Platform US Summit, which starts today.

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The submission of the design to Open Compute Project ensures a focus on compatibility and modularity and allows a wide variety of designs to be requested and networked together.  If you have a need for HPC performance you can request a board with an HPC GPU such as a FirePro or Tesla, or even drop in your own optimized FPGA.  Instead of opting for an impressive but expensive NVME storage solution, you can modify the design to accommodate 16 SATA HDDs for affordable storage.

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Qualcomm have already announced Windows 10 support on their Snapdragon, but the fact that Microsoft are internally running Windows Server on an ARM v8 based processor is much more impressive.  Intel and AMD have long held reign in the server room and have rightfully shrugged of the many times in which companies have announced ARM based servers which will offer more power efficient alternatives.  Intel have made huge advances at creating low power chips for the server room; AMD's recently announced Naples shows their intentions to hold their market share as well.

If the submission to the OPC succeeds then we may see the first mainstream ARM based servers appear on the market.  Even if the Windows Server instances remain internal to Microsoft, the Centriq series will support Red Hat, CentOS, Canonical and Ubuntu as well as both GCC and LLVM compilers. 

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(click to seriously embiggen)

ARM may finally have reached the server market after all these years and it will be interesting to see how they fare.  AMD and Intel have both had to vastly reduce the power consumption of their chips and embrace a diametrically opposite design philosophy; instead of a small number of powerful chips, servers of the future will consist of arrays of less powerful chips working in tandem.  ARM has had to do the opposite, they are the uncontested rulers of low powered chips but have had to change their designs to increase the processing capabilities of their chips in order to produce an effective product for the server room.  

Could Qualcomm successful enter the server room; or will their ARMs not have the necessary reach?

Source: Qualcomm

Glad it is not Podcast night! Microsoft is not having a good day

Subject: General Tech | March 7, 2017 - 01:17 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, outlook, office 365, skype, hotmail

Many users of Hotmail, Outlook and Skype are finding themselves unable to log in to their accounts and some are complaining about access to their XBox accounts.  The problem is being described as an authentication issue, something that users of Exchange Online are all too familiar with.  Microsoft is currently working on a solution and the incident count on Down Detector seems do have dropped in the past few hours but there are still some problems.  The professional side also seems to be suffering as well, with several performance issues effecting a variety of services.  If you are one of those currently suffering, you can follow the link from The Register to report it on Down Detector, if you wish.

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"Naturally, users of Microsoft's cloud services have taken to Twitter and Reddit to moan about the downtime, with some complaining that Xbox online services have also been hit by the downtime."

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Source: The Register

Microsoft HoloLens Takes Michael Abrash Too Literally?

Subject: General Tech | March 7, 2017 - 07:37 AM |
Tagged: microsoft, hololens

When Michael Abrash moved from Intel to Valve, according to his post on the latter company’s blog, he suggested that he should help optimize Portal 2. The response from Jay Stelly was interesting: “Yeah, you could do that, but we’ll get it shipped anyway.” That’s... not something you’d expect from a company that is getting ready to ship a huge, AAA title.

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He took that feedback as a license to think outside the box, which led to their “wearable computing” initiative that eventually formed the basis of Steam VR. One key part of this blog post was the minor parenthetical, “think Terminator vision”.

Apparently, Microsoft’s HoloLens team has. As a cute little Unity demo, they are overlaying text and post-processing shaders atop the camera feed. It’s not just baked 2D text, though; they are also pushing the feed through object- and text-recognition, suggesting that users take the source (available on GitHub) and extend it through translation or text-to-speech.

The demo is primarily written in C#, which makes sense, because Unity.

Source: Microsoft

Huzzah! Delayed reboots are returning to Win10 Home

Subject: General Tech | March 3, 2017 - 01:33 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, windows 10

If you are using Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise, you may have already disabled the automatic reboot function after updates are installed but for Home users after the Anniversary update, that has not been possible.  It turns out there are a lot of users quite upset with unplanned reboots, especially those who leave their computers running overnight or while they are away.  Microsoft have accepted this feedback and will return the ability to delay reboots to owners of the Home Edition in their next update.  In the meantime, The Register describes a way in which you can regain a little more control over automatic reboots with your current build.

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"Since the Windows 10 Anniversary Update in 2016, there is no way to prevent Windows 10 [Home] from automatically installing updates and rebooting your PC," fumed one vulture fan, John, who added that a group policy can be set on W10 Pro and Enterprise editions to prevent automated restarts."

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Source: The Register

The Microsoft Store's unintentional cash back offer

Subject: General Tech | February 28, 2017 - 03:48 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, oops, Lawsuit

If you purchased anything from the Microsoft store between November 2013 and February 24 of this year and live in the USA you could be eligible for up to $100 in cash damages.  It seems that the credit card information they provided on receipts contained more than half of your credit card numbers which is in violation of a law implemented in 2003 which states that no more than five numbers can be shown on receipts.  Now that the judgment against Microsoft is in, the proposed settlement for Microsoft to set aside $1,194,696US for customers who were affected by this issue.  The settlement needs to be approved by the judge so you cannot claim your money immediately, keep an eye out for more new.  The Register have posted links to the original lawsuit as well as the judgment right here.

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"On Friday, the Redmond giant agreed to give up roughly seven minutes of its quarterly revenue to a gaggle of Microsoft Store customers who claimed that their receipts displayed more of their payment card numbers than legally allowed."

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Source: The Register

Microsoft Cancels February's Monthly Cumulative Update

Subject: General Tech | February 17, 2017 - 07:01 AM |
Tagged: windows 10, microsoft

Don’t worry if you didn’t receive cumulative Windows Updates this month.

At first, Microsoft showed no love for Valentine’s Day when they delayed the update that was supposed to roll out to the public. No explanation was provided. Two days later, Microsoft decided to write off the whole month. Everything that has been fixed since January 10th will be delayed until March 14th.

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This is quite the wait. Peter Bright of Ars Technica notes that “off-cycle updates are also unpopular”. Yes, IT professionals hate it when software vendors are difficult to schedule around. I’m not sure how much that had to do with this decision, though. On the one hand, when a new build launches to the public, it’s not uncommon to have an update (or more) per week over the first couple of months. On the other hand, it would be reasonable for Microsoft to assume that customers, those who carefully test patches before deploying them, would not have ingested a huge, nebulous feature release into their network just weeks after launch. Still, out-of-band updates happen, and it’s interesting that it didn’t happen in this circumstance.

One thing that this patch should have fixed, however, is delayed or clipped display output in games (and other 3D applications) on multi-monitor systems. While not as critical as security, it is probably annoying for anyone affected to need to wait another 28 days. Microsoft claims it will be fixed then, though.

Source: Microsoft

Have you ever noticed how popular June 21, 2006 is?

Subject: General Tech | February 9, 2017 - 01:51 PM |
Tagged: workaround, microsoft

Have you ever noticed how many drivers on your system are dated June 21st, 2006?  If not, pop open device manager and take a look at some of your devices which don't use a driver directly from the manufacturer.  Slashdot posted a link to the inimitable Raymond Chen who explains exactly why so many of your drivers bear that date.  The short version is that this is a workaround which prevents newer Microsoft drivers from overwriting manufacturer's drivers by ensuring the date stamp on the Microsoft driver will never have a more recent date.  This is especially important for laptop users as even the simple chipset drivers will be supplied by the manufacturer.  For instance this processor is old, but not that old!

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"When the system looks for a driver to use for a particular piece of hardware, it ranks them according to various criteria. If a driver provides a perfect match to the hardware ID, then it becomes a top candidate. And if more than one driver provides a perfect match, then the one with the most recent timestamp is chosen."

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Source: Slashdot

DirectX Intermediate Language Announced... via GitHub

Subject: Graphics Cards | January 27, 2017 - 09:19 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, DirectX, llvm, dxil, spir-v, vulkan

Over the holidays, Microsoft has published the DirectX Shader Compiler onto GitHub. The interesting part about this is that it outputs HLSL into DirectX Intermediate Language (DXIL) bytecode, which can be ingested by GPU drivers and executed on graphics devices. The reason why this is interesting is that DXIL is based on LLVM, which might start to sound familiar if you have been following along with The Khronos Group and their announcements regarding Vulkan, OpenCL, and SPIR-V.

As it turns out, they were on to something, and Microsoft is working on a DirectX analogue of it.

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The main advantage of LLVM-based bytecode is that you can eventually support multiple languages (and the libraries of code developed in them). When SPIR-V was announced with Vulkan, the first thing that came to my mind was compiling to it from HLSL, which would be useful for existing engines, as they are typically written in HLSL and transpiled to the target platform when used outside of DirectX (like GLSL for OpenGL). So, in Microsoft’s case, it would make sense that they start there (since they own the thing) but I doubt that is the end goal. The most seductive outcome for game engine developers would be single-source C++, but there is a lot of steps between there and here.

Another advantage, albeit to a lesser extent, is that you might be able to benefit from performance optimizations, both on the LLVM / language side as well as on the driver’s side.

According to their readme, the minimum support will be HLSL Shader Model 6. This is the most recent shading model, and it introduces some interesting instructions, typically for GPGPU applications, that allow multiple GPU threads to interact, like balloting. Ironically, while DirectCompute and C++AMP don’t seem to be too popular, this would nudge DirectX 12 into a somewhat competent GPU compute API.

DXIL support is limited to Windows 10 Build 15007 and later, so you will need to either switch one (or more) workstation(s) to Insider, or wait until it launches with the Creators Update (unless something surprising holds it back).

Optical disillusion; Microsoft's HoloLens

Subject: General Tech | January 26, 2017 - 01:42 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, hololens

Microsoft seems to be exploring new territory, previously reserved for those who need a nice mouse or headphones with the pure sound of platinum.  Their HoloLens has been available for several months and they have managed to sell several thousand of them in that time.   Roger Walkden, the commercial lead for HoloLens spoke with The Register and stated that he is happy with the amount of sales so far.  While you cannot expect a headset costing well over $2000 to have large commercial appeal, the pittance of sales of the HoloLens so far makes you wonder if they have misjudged the market.  Then again, maybe we will be seeing Windows 11 Rhodium Exclusive Edition on offer for a select few.

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"The Microsoft HoloLens, Judge Dredd-style "mixed reality" headset, went on sale in the UK last year, with the firm offering a developer-only version for £2,179, and an enterprised-focused model for £4,529."

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Source: The Register

Microsoft Xbox Project Scorpio Whitepaper Leaked

Subject: Systems | January 24, 2017 - 10:30 PM |
Tagged: xbox one, xbox, Project Scorpio, microsoft

Digital Foundry received an Xbox Project Scorpio whitepaper from an anonymous source, although they were able to validate its authenticity. Basically, they sent it to their own, off-the-record sources who would have access to the same info, and those individuals confirmed it’s an official document that they’ve seen before. Of course, the trust bottlenecks through Digital Foundry, but they’re about as reputable as you can get in this industry, so that works.

Anywho, disclaimer aside, the whitepaper unveils a few interesting details about how Project Scorpio is expecting to provide higher performance. The most interesting change is what’s missing: the small, on-chip RAM (ESRAM). Microsoft claims that the higher global memory bandwidth removes the need to have it on Project Scorpio.

Digital Foundry is still a bit concerned that, while the 320 GB/s bandwidth might be enough, the latency might be a concern for compatibility. Personally, I’m not too concerned. Modern GPUs do a huge amount of latency-hiding tricks, such as parking whole shaders at global memory accesses and running other tasks while the GPU fetches the memory the original shader needs, swapping it back and finishing when it arrives. Also, the increased GPU performance will mean that the game has more room to be wasteful of GPU resources, since it only needs to perform at least as good as a regular Xbox One. I expect that there wouldn’t be enough round-trips to ESRAM for it to be a major slowdown when running on Project Scorpio (and its not-ESRAM).

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Seriously, Wall-E with a Freddie Mercury 'stache.

Microsoft does suggest that developers make use of ESRAM on Xbox One and Xbox One S, though. Yes, don’t deliberately throw away performance on the slower machines just because that accelerator isn’t available on higher-end devices, like Project Scorpio or a gaming PC (heh heh heh).

Another point that Digital Foundry highlighted was that the actual number of rendered fragments (pixels that may or may not make it to screen) didn’t scale up by a factor-of-four (going from 1080p to 4K) in all cases. A first-party developer noticed a case where it was only a 3.5x scaling between the two resolutions. (This metric was actually rendered pixels, not even just GPU load, which would include resolution-independent tasks, like physics simulations.) I’m not exactly sure how the number of fragments decreased, but it could be due to some rendering tricks, like when Halo renders the background at a lower resolution. (Yes, I’m using Khronos verbiage; it’s less ambiguous.)

They also assume that Project Scorpio will use pre-Zen AMD CPU cores. I agree. It seems like Zen wouldn’t be around early enough to make production, especially when you consider the pre-release units that are circulating around Microsoft, and probably third-party developers, too.

Project Scorpio launches this holiday season (2017).