Meet Project Catapult, a super-search machine network being built by Microsoft engineers



Microsoft engineers are working on Project Catapult, utilizing field-programmable arrays (FPGAs) that Microsoft can modify specifically for use on its own software such as Bing. This allows for faster Bing searches, and can be used on other online services from the Redmond giant.

Using these FPGAs, Microsoft engineers are building what they are calling a “super-search machine network” called “Catapult.” This network features 1,632 servers, each powered by an Intel Xeon processor and a daughter card that contains the Altera FPGA chip, all linked to the Catapult network. These FPGAs are forty times faster than a CPU at processing Bing’s custom algorithms, for example.

So how does it work? Well, the system takes search queries from Bing and off loads the query to the FPGAs, which are custom programmed for the heavy computational work. In other words, the FPGAs figure out which webpage results should be displayed and in which order. Catapult can bundle the FPGAs into mini-networks of eight chips, and this is useful since Microsoft’s search algorithms require a lot of processing power.

The folks over at Wired have brought up a great point. “After decades of regular performance boosts, chips are no longer improving at the same rate they once were. As their web services continue to grow, these companies are looking for new ways of improving the speed and efficiency of their already massive operations,” Wired stated in an official blog post. This is where Project Catapult comes in.

There are still some issues with the network but Microsoft is confident that this method can be pushed to other services across the company. “If all we were doing was improving Bing, I probably wouldn’t get clearance from my boss to spend this kind of money on a project like this,” says Peter Lee, the head of Microsoft Research. “The Catapult architecture is really much more general-purpose, and the kinds of workloads that Doug [Doug Burger, who is heading up Project Catapult] is envisioning that can be dramatically accelerated by this are much more wide-ranging.”

Originally starting out as a 1,600-server pilot program to test out the idea, Microsoft has green-lit the project to be moved into the company’s live data centers. This will take place early next year and we will begin to see this speed improvement when searching on Bing.

Thanks for the tip, Rob!