Microsoft has invested in the research and development of custom silicon chips. This move reflects their steadfast commitment to innovating their products, advancing technology while maximising their customer experience. For these reasons, it is important to understand why Microsoft is investing heavily in custom chips and what this means for users of their products and services.
Custom chips, also known as “System on a Chip” (SOC), are specialised pieces of hardware implemented onto a single chip designed to address unique needs such as improved performance, power efficiency, security and scalability. Microsoft’s major investment into the niche enables them to design purpose-built chips to deliver unique software capabilities tailored for particular workloads from data centres down to mobile devices. This approach allows them to maximise the potential of their product portfolio and create innovative pieces of software that cater more closely to customer demands.
Microsoft’s History with Custom Chips
Microsoft has a long history of developing custom hardware chips, starting with the first Xbox console and extending to their Surface Pro tablet lines. They have now hired a key engineer from Apple to join their team and work on the development of custom chips. This move shows their commitment to continuing the development of custom chips, highlighting the potential that Microsoft sees in these hardware solutions.
Let’s take a look at Microsoft’s experience with custom chips and why this recent hire may be a sign of things to come:
Microsoft’s Early Custom Chip Projects
Microsoft’s earliest custom chip projects date back to the late 1990s. Although Microsoft had no dedicated chip design teams then, two separate initiatives were pursued. The first was for Windows CE-based developer tools and other embedded devices. This initiative ultimately led to the company’s first commercially successful custom processor, the SA1110 (StrongARM). The second project involved building a “system on a chip” (SoC) platform for gaming consoles such as Xbox and Xbox 360 – now known as Xbox Platform Architecture (XPA).
The XPA SoC used two ARM cores combined with traditional GPU cores for its CPU/GPU combination. It was specifically designed with multimedia performance in mind, since it needed to handle high definition 3D graphics at an affordable cost during an era dominated by PlayStation 2 and Nintendo GameCube chipsets. In 2006, the XPA was rebranded as the Xbox 360 System-on-Chip (Xenon), with an improved graphics core and updated ARM core hardware designs. In 2012, Microsoft officially partnered with AMD to produce a customised version of their Radeon HD 7000 graphics card series for use with its Xbox One game console.
Microsoft has continued to develop its custom chips, most recently launching its Azure Cloud AI platform featuring dedicated hardware and coprocessors based on Intel Xeon Scalable processors coupled with FPGAs from Intel’s Programmable Solutions Group. As Microsoft continues creating innovative solutions through the implementation of custom chips, we can only expect to see more developments roll out in the years to come!
Microsoft’s Recent Custom Chip Projects
Microsoft has increasingly leveraged custom chip designs to enhance the performance and features of its core products. The company’s most notable recent in-house chip projects include:
- Project Brainwave: Microsoft first debuted Project Brainwave in 2017, aiming for the company to deploy real-time Artificial Intelligence (AI) within Microsoft Azure servers. This initiative utilises a customised Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chip platform that combines hardware accelerators, digital signal processors, and programmable solutions optimised for AI workloads.
- Project Tangle Lake: In 2018, Microsoft unveiled its plans for a new processor based on RISC-V open source chip design architecture. This prototype would be engineered with a neural network processor specifically designed to learn how to complete tasks via machine learning algorithms. The goal behind Project Tangle Lake is twofold: To offer Microsoft an alternative that clears the licensing fees associated with x86 and ARM networks and proves their ability to engineer innovative chips internally.
- Microsoft Azure SmartNICs: Recently announced at Ignite 2021, this project seeks to implement programmability within server networking infrastructure by replacing physical Network Interface Card (NIC) components with optimised GPUs. These smart NICs will enable engineers to offload various networking functions from servers’ CPUs onto dedicated FPGA chips located on the NIC itself, freeing CPU resources for more focused tasks while accelerating overall system performance.
The Benefits of Custom Chips
With the emergence of new technologies, custom chips provide an attractive solution for improved performance and efficiency. Microsoft’s recent investment in hiring an Apple engineer to develop custom chips for their products suggests that this trend is set to continue.
This article will explore the benefits of custom chips and why Microsoft is investing in them.
Custom chips offer many advantages over standard off-the-shelf solutions in the quest to maximise performance. Custom chips are designed with specific features tailored to a particular application and are often found in consumer electronics and industrial control systems. In addition, companies can use custom chips to achieve higher performance than generic solutions through optimised hardware drivers and firmware.
The higher performance of these custom solutions also allows for smaller, more portable, reliable and energy-efficient products. Furthermore, custom chips allow for greater control over the power usage of devices as well as improved communication between components. In addition, optimised circuitry enables lower latency and higher bandwidths than comparable generic solutions. This increased performance opens up a wide array of possibilities such as:
- Improved multimedia streaming capabilities
- The ability to run next-generation gaming consoles
Additionally, with access to custom instruction sets, developers can create application-specific microprocessors to drastically reduce cost while still providing outstanding performance levels.
Reduced Power Consumption
When selecting custom chips for electronic products and applications, power consumption is a major consideration. The reduced power consumption of tailor-made packaged chips enables optimal power efficiency compared to other chips, such as Plastic Leaded Chip Carrier (PLCC).
Custom chips provide more control over the application’s timing, frequency, and power ratings while reducing waste by eliminating unnecessary functionality.
- This improved efficiency can result in extended battery life and operation time in battery powered devices.
- Reduced power consumption also leads to increased product Safety Margins (SM) since components are not subject to the additional voltage required to transfer signals on longer traces during design.
- Additionally, due to having fewer external components than PLCCs or other forms of ICs, custom ICs may increase reliability and reduce cost through fewer board layers being used for routing.
- Overall, custom ICs tailored for an application or system can provide advanced features with better energy efficiency and cost savings.
Custom chips provide improved security by providing a secure data transmission and storage foundation. In addition, many custom chips are designed with enhanced encryption, authentication and authorization processes for the highest protection against malicious attempts to access sensitive data. This makes it much more difficult for hackers to access confidential information, ensuring that your company’s valuable data is kept safe.
Additionally, many custom chips are designed with specialised circuitry that helps detect and block unauthorised access attempts. By incorporating these measures into your system, you can rest assured that your important information is securely stored away from prying eyes.
Microsoft Hires Key Apple Engineer to Work on Custom Chips
Microsoft has recently made a significant hire in the tech industry, bringing on an Apple engineer to work on Microsoft’s custom chip division. This hiring move illustrates how Microsoft is investing heavily in custom chips for the future of their products. It also demonstrates how the company is looking to bridge the gap between their technology and that of one of their biggest competitors.
Let’s take a closer look at Microsoft’s decision to target a key Apple engineer to work on custom chips:
The Engineer’s Background
Microsoft recently announced the hire of an Apple engineer, Manish Paul. Before joining Microsoft, Paul had two years of experience as a software engineer for Apple. He holds an MS degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Michigan, where he graduated with Honors in 2014.
Paul is no stranger to Silicon Valley having spent several years working for various tech companies including Amazon, Google and Apple. He has worked on various projects including low-level machine learning applications and distributed systems development. Additionally, Paul has published several papers on topics ranging from System Engineering with partial differential equations to automated robotics navigation algorithms in IEEE conferences worldwide.
During his tenure at Apple, Paul was responsible for designing and developing software components in several consumer products including mobile payment technologies such as Apple Pay. With this experience, Microsoft is tasked with crafting new technology initiatives that leverage machine learning algorithms powering its Artificial Intelligence services to deliver intelligent applications tailored to user accessibility and automation requirements.
What the Engineer Will be Working On
Microsoft recently moved to hire Mary Corpuz, an engineer from Apple Inc. She will become part of the Microsoft Devices Team and will be helping the software giant create more innovative products. Her high-level expertise in engineering, design, and product development has already attracted numerous leading companies inside and outside of tech.
Corpuz will be working on Microsoft’s Surface Book 2, a laptop that features a 13.5 inch touchscreen display with pen support that was introduced in 2017. Additionally, she may have a hand developing any new device under the “Surface” brand or other upcoming innovations from Microsoft. Finally, she is expected to help refine existing products such as Surface Pro X by implementing changes based on consumer feedback and suggestions.
The career move speaks to Microsoft’s desire to stay at the forefront of industry trends while maintaining relevance with evolving consumer lifestyles and tastes. As such, Corpuz’s contributions will undoubtedly be appreciated by Microsoft fans worldwide as they wait eagerly for new cutting-edge products from the technology giant.
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