Microsoft’s ARM-based CPU Cobalt will Support Windows 11 in the Cloud

By Agam Shah

May 29, 2024

Microsoft’s ARM-based CPU, called Cobalt, is now available in the cloud for public consumption. Cobalt is Microsoft’s first homegrown CPU, which was first announced six months ago. The cloud-based Cobalt VMs will support a range of Linux distributions for high-performance applications, but surprisingly, also Windows 11.

“Client application developers can take advantage of Azure’s highly available, scalable, and secure platform to run cloud-based builds and test workflows. For Windows developers, Insider Preview of Windows 11 Pro and Enterprise are available for Azure Cobalt 100 VMs,” Microsoft said in a blog entry.

The wording doesn’t explicitly state native support for Windows 11 on Cobalt 100, which is more of a server-level CPU. However, customers can deploy Windows 11 virtualized applications on Cobalt.

Microsoft Maia AI Accelerator and the ARM Cobalt CPU for deployment in its Azure cloud service (Source Microsoft)

A Windows support page mentions that Windows 11 on Azure is currently only supported by x86 server chips from Intel (starting with the Skylake generation) and AMD (starting with the Naples generation).

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon is the only ARM-based processor supporting Windows 11. Native Windows 11 support on Cobalt could be a real possibility.

Windows 11 support on Cobalt on VM could also be delivered through an emulator. For example, Apple’s M-series chips don’t natively support Windows operating systems but can still run through Parallels virtual desktop software.

Microsoft has plans to deliver cloud-to-chip Windows applications, and the latest Qualcomm chips have the Pluton security chips, which authenticate authorized users to access Azure cloud services.

The Cobalt CPU is already being used to power Microsoft’s online services.

“Cobalt is being used for video processing and permissions management in Microsoft 365, helping power billions of conversations on services like Microsoft Teams already,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at a Microsoft Build keynote on Tuesday.

It is also used to power cloud-based apps provided by MongoDB, Snowflake, and Teradata, which mostly run on Linux.

“In our most recent benchmark data and tests, our Cobalt 100 VMs delivered up to 40% better performance than any other generally available ARM-based VM. So we’re very excited about Cobalt getting into the market,” Nadella said.

Microsoft’s blog points out that the Azure Cobalt 100 VMs are two times faster on web server workloads and 1.5x faster on Java compared to “previous generation Azure Arm-based VMs.”

This performance may be a call-out to Ampere’s Altra-based VMs, which are based on the ARM architecture. It is the only other ARM-based CPU in Azure. However, Ampere Computing, which made the chip, has already announced a next-generation version of its CPU with 256 cores.

The preview will be available in U.S. and European regions. Google and Amazon also have homegrown ARM-based CPUs, which only run Linux-based VMs.

Microsoft is also adding more GPU muscle to its already beefy AI infrastructure, which gives more high-performance computing options to researchers.

The company is the first hardware provider to make AMD’s MI300A GPU publicly available through its cloud service. It was previously available in preview.

“It offers the best price-performance on GPT-4 for inference,” Nadella said.

A block of eight AMD MI300X GPUs includes 1.5 TB of HBM and 5.3 terabits per second of HBM bandwidth. It will also support the ROCm AI development stack, which is largely built out of open-source parts with optimization hooks for AMD GPUs.

Nvidia’s H200 GPUs will be available on Azure later this year, and the Blackwell GPUs will come after that.

“We will be among the first cloud providers to offer Nvidia’s Blackwell GPUs, B100s, as well as GB200 configurations,” Nadella said.

Microsoft is also bringing Nvidia’s DGX boxes with the Blackwell GPUs into the Azure environment and working with Nvidia to optimize AI models.

“We are continuing to work with them to train and optimize large language models like GPT-4o,” Nadella said.

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