Microsoft Build is Microsoft’s most interesting event because it focuses on people who build things, mostly code, but often, as is the case this year, hardware.
Last week Microsoft held its latest build event and I’m pretty sure it freaked out most PC OEMs. Indeed, Microsoft has announced a new desktop targeted for developers called Project Volterra. It has four processors and is ARM-based, not x86-based, and it’s coupled with a major effort to deliver ARM-native code that allows this platform, with the help of Qualcomm, to reach its full potential. potential once the code becomes available towards the end of 2022.
But ARM is only one of four processors. We still have the GPU, but Microsoft added an NPU and an ACU (Azure Compute Unit), and the latter isn’t even in the PC. Let’s talk about how Microsoft is radically rethinking the PC in a cloud world, and how disruptive this necessary change is likely to be.
Then we’ll end with my product of the week, which has to be Project Volterra because it reminds me of the old PCjr from IBM but well done. (IBM crippled the IBM PCjr because they rightly feared it would cannibalize their IBM PC sales, creating what is now a manual product error.)
Inside the 4-CPU PC
PCs today have two processors, a CPU that handles digital information and a GPU that focuses more on unstructured data and visual information. Together they define PC performance, with the current trend shifting loads from the CPU to the GPU as they become less structured and more visually focused, especially when it comes to how PCs present their information. .
But with the rise of artificial intelligence – and the fact that AI works very differently from applications designed for CPUs or GPUs, forming decision chains based on neural network capabilities based on how we think our brain works – these loads run inefficiently on CPUs, and while more efficient on GPUs, ask for a very different hardware architecture designed specifically for these workloads.
Enter the NPU or Neural Processing Unit. On paper, it can outperform both CPU and GPU with loads of AI doing more with much less power and opening the door for developers who want to build apps that can use an AI processing platform. targeted and more effective. This means focusing much more on AI capabilities in the future, and Microsoft has said that in the future all PCs will have NPUs.
But what about the APU? Well, that’s an acronym I came up with. APU stands for Azure Processing Unit. It’s that second shoe we’ve been waiting for since Satya took over Microsoft. It refers to a persistent connection to Azure in the cloud for additional processing power. It’s truly the first endpoint hardware implementation that addresses the hybrid world we live in today.
By hybrid, I don’t mean working from home and in the office, although that does apply to the world we find ourselves in today. It also doesn’t apply to hybrid cloud as we’re currently talking about server loads. This is a new hybrid concept, where loads are moved between cloud and desktop as needed.
Like PCjr – but in a good way
Project Volterra is a new class of workstations with all four ARM-based processors and focused on developers developing for ARM-based PCs. As I mentioned earlier, it reminds me of IBM’s PCjr (pronounced “PC junior”) from the 1980s, but done right.
The PCjr was a revolutionary modular design that was incredibly cheaply priced for its time and offered an easy upgrade path that would have anticipated the PC-as-a-service concept that came decades later.
But someone in IBM’s planning expressed concern that the PCjr, which was aimed at consumers, was too good because it made the much more expensive IBM PC look old and too expensive. Thus they crippled the PCjr and effectively killed it, leading them to learn the lesson you never paralyze a product because it is too good. If customers prefer it, you switch to this preference to ensure that customer needs take priority over revenue.
Which brings us back to the Volterra project. It appears to be a high performance desktop workstation that could be built much cheaper than traditional workstations. Plus, it’s stackable to add performance much like the PCjr was modular. But above all, he is not paralyzed. Although initially focused on building ARM-native apps, he anticipates a future where these apps will be widespread and able to run in accordance with their older x86 versions.
This takes the one big problem for ARM PCs – that they have to run under emulation and therefore run inefficiently, causing them to underperform x86 PCs – and allows them to compete with x86 on a more equal playing field. None of these are on the market yet and the wave they are building is still several years away. As we get closer to 2025, I expect ARM-based PCs and workstations with all of these advantages to be able to compete by then.
Microsoft has been one of the companies that propels personal technology and, from time to time, revolutionizes it. The move to a quad-processor PC, with one processor in the cloud and another focused on AI workloads, is one of the biggest hardware changes since PCs launched. Demonstrating its deep knowledge of what the market wants, Microsoft gives us a vision of the future of our PC that involves and requires a ubiquitous cloud connection.
We can now expect a world to come of hybrid desktop apps, NPCs (non-player characters) in games that look more like real people, and PC-based support apps that help us gain benefits from productivity that we cannot even dream of today. .
Promising increased collaboration capabilities not just with our peers, but with ever-smarter computers that can step in and drive our projects forward, Microsoft Build this year envisions a very different workplace, a very different set of employee tools. and advanced hardware that may look and function very differently from the PCs we have today.
In short, to say Microsoft Build has been disruptive this year would be an understatement.
The Surface PC line, which was exclusively for Apple, lacked a normal desktop PC-class workstation or product from the start. They have an all-in-one PC that they position for a creative user, but it lacks the kind of targeted processing performance of a workstation. With the announcement of the Volterra project, that will change.
Volterra Project | Image credit: Microsoft
While Microsoft showed off a desktop configuration, the form factor anticipates a laptop variant – but given the parallel advent of head-mounted displays, this laptop could also be a breakthrough design that we won’t see. until that platform gets much closer to launch.
Initially, the Volterra project will not target traditional workstation workloads such as CAD/CAM architecture or large-scale modeling, but will focus on an area that has so far had little been supported by workstations, namely high-performance ARM-based applications that run natively on Windows and ARM without emulation.
But think of it as just a stepping stone. Once these applications exist, the use of workstations like Project Volterra will move into more traditional areas once they pass the required certifications, and of course, once they can run the associated applications in a way native.
Project Volterra is on a critical path to making ARM a true peer with x86 and creating a new class of PC that embraces AI and the cloud more deeply than ever before, making it the perfect candidate for my product. of the week.
Plus, it was one of, if not the most amazing things announced at Microsoft Build this year.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.