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Microsoft launches Arm-based Azure VMs powered by Ampere chips

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Following a preview in April, Microsoft this morning announced the general availability of virtual machines (VMs) on Azure featuring the Ampere Altra, a processor based on the Arm architecture. The first Azure VMs powered by Arm chips, Microsoft says that they’re accessible in 10 Azure regions today and can be included in Kubernetes clusters managed using Azure Kubernetes Service beginning on September 1.

The Azure Arm-based VMs have up to 64 virtual CPU cores, 8 GB of memory per core and 40 Gbps of networking bandwidth as well as SSD local and attachable storage. Microsoft describes them as “engineered to efficiently run scale-out, cloud-native workloads,” including open source databases, Java and .NET applications and gaming, web, app and media servers.

Preview releases of Windows 11 Pro and Enterprise and Linux OS distributions including Canonical Ubuntu, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Enterprise Linux, CentOS and Debian are available on the VMs day one, with support for Alma Linux and Rocky Linux to arrive in the future. Microsoft notes that Java apps in particular can run with few additional code changes, thanks to the company’s contributions to the OpenJDK project.

The launch of the Azure VMs is a notable win for Ampere, which came out of stealth in 2018 with the ambitious goal of competing with Intel for a slice of the ~$10 billion data center chip market. Backed by $426 million in venture capital and led by a former Intel president, the company has managed to snag a foothold in recent years, inking deals with Oracle, Equinix, Google Cloud and China-based cloud service providers Tencent Cloud, JD Cloud and UCloud to launch Arm-based VMs.

Ampere competes with Arm-powered VMs from Amazon Web Services, which acquired startup Annapurna Labs in 2015 to build its own Arm-based, general-purpose server hardware lineup called Graviton. Microsoft is reportedly pursuing its own Arm chip designs, as well, as are Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Huawei.

Research firm Omdia said last August that it expects Arm to account for 14% of servers by 2025. If the prediction comes to pass, it’d be a major coup against Intel’s x86 chips, which controlled an estimated 89% of the market as of March 2022.

For Microsoft, the Ampere VMs launch is a step toward fulfilling the pledge it made five years ago to power more than half of its cloud data center capacity with Arm-compatible servers. After a false start with Centriq server processors from Qualcomm, which were ultimately discontinued, the company appears better positioned to reach that threshold.

“The general availability of Microsoft Azure VMs on Arm marks an important milestone in redefining what is possible in cloud computing,” Arm SVP Chris Bergey is quoted as saying in a blog post detailing the Azure VMs. “Through market-leading scalable efficiency and the liberty to innovate, Arm … is enabling Azure customers to embrace the increasing diversity of workloads with better overall total cost of ownership and cleaner cloud service operations.”

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