Microsoft’s new custom-designed chips to speed up AI computing tasks

Microsoft says it will use these chips to power its own subscription software offerings; has no intentions of selling these
An undated image of Microsofts headquarters in Redmond, Washington. — Pixabay
An undated image of Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington. — Pixabay

After facing the issues related to the high cost of delivering artificial intelligence services, Microsoft has joined hands with other tech giants as it announced a duo of custom-designed computing chips.

Microsoft, according to Reuters, said it will use the chips to power its own subscription software offerings and as part of its Azure cloud computing service. It should be noted that the tech giant has no intentions of selling the chips.

Microsoft — at its Ignite developer conference in Seattle — introduced a new chip, called Maia, to speed up AI computing tasks and provide a foundation for its $30-a-month "Copilot" service for business software users, as well as for developers who want to make custom AI services.

The Maia chip was designed to run large language models, a type of AI software that underpins Microsoft's Azure OpenAI service and is a product of Microsoft's collaboration with ChatGPT creator OpenAI.

Microsoft and other tech giants such as Alphabet are grappling with the high cost of delivering AI services, which can be 10 times greater than for traditional services such as search engines.

Read more: Google's Bard AI empowered to generate and execute code for question responses

Microsoft executives have said they plan to tackle those costs by routing nearly all of the company's sprawling efforts to put AI in its products through a common set of foundational AI models. The Maia chip, they said, is optimised for that work.

Scott Guthrie, the executive vice president of Microsoft's cloud and AI group said: "We think this gives us a way that we can provide better solutions to our customers that are faster and lower cost and higher quality."

Microsoft also said that next year it will offer its Azure customers cloud services that run on the newest flagship chips from Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices. Microsoft said it is testing GPT 4 — OpenAI's most advanced model — on AMD's chips.

Analyst Firm Creative Strategies Chief Executive Ben Bajarin said: "This is not something that's displacing Nvidia."

He said the Maia chip would allow Microsoft to sell AI services in the cloud until personal computers and phones are powerful enough to handle them.

"Microsoft has a very different kind of core opportunity here because they're making a lot of money per user for the services," Bajarin said.

Microsoft's second chip announced earlier this week is designed to be both an internal cost saver and an answer to Microsoft's chief cloud rival, Amazon Web Services.

Named Cobalt, the new chip is a central processing unit (CPU) made with technology from Arm Holdings. Microsoft disclosed on Wednesday that it has already been testing Cobalt to power Teams, its business messaging tool.

Read more: How to get into AI Prompt Engineering

But Microsoft's Guthrie said his company also wants to sell direct access to Cobalt to compete with the "Graviton" series of in-house chips offered by Amazon Web Services (AWS).

"We are designing our Cobalt solution to ensure that we are very competitive both in terms of performance as well as price-to-performance (compared with Amazon's chips)," Guthrie said.

AWS will hold its own developer conference later this month, and a spokesman said that its Graviton chip now has 50,000 customers.

"AWS will continue to innovate to deliver future generations of AWS-designed chips to deliver even better price-performance for whatever customer workloads require," the spokesman said after Microsoft announced its chip.

Microsoft gave few technical details that would allow gauging the chips' competitiveness versus those of traditional chipmakers. Rani Borkar, corporate vice president for Azure hardware systems and infrastructure, said both are made with 5-nanometer manufacturing technology from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

She added that the Maia chip would be strung together with standard Ethernet network cabling, rather than a more expensive custom Nvidia networking technology that Microsoft used in the supercomputers it built for OpenAI.

"You will see us going a lot more the standardization route," Borkar told Reuters.