Microsoft adds FPGA-powered network accelerator to Azure

'Azure Boost' vastly speeds cloudy server IOPS and is coming to all new instance types

Microsoft has announced a mysterious cloud hardware upgrade called "Azure Boost" that it claims will improve the performance of all future instance types in its big blue cloud.

"Azure Boost is a system designed by Microsoft that offloads server virtualization processes traditionally performed by the hypervisor and host OS onto purpose-built software and hardware," states a post from last week. "This offloading frees up CPU resources for the guest virtual machines, resulting in improved performance."

In other words, a SmartNIC/DPU/IPU – standard equipment for hyperscalers, including Microsoft, for a few years now. We asked Microsoft what's new or different about Azure Boost compared to its existing accelerators, but the tech giant didn't respond.

Microsoft's post adds that compatible Azure hosts include the "Microsoft Azure Network Adapter" (MANA) – a network interface card (NIC) that "includes the latest hardware acceleration features and provides competitive performance with a consistent driver interface" and packs a field-programmable gate array (FPGA).

MANA is custom kit developed by Microsoft, and not the Pensando SmartNICs already offered in Azure or kit the software giant acquired from SmartNIC-maker Fungible in early 2023.

Azure Boost already runs on 17 Azure instance types and will be present on all future Azure VMs. Microsoft indicated it may be backported to more existing VM types too.

If so, happy days – because Microsoft claims that its MANA-and-Azure-Boost-equipped Ebsv5 instance type "provides 260K IOPS Premium SSD storage performance," while the Ev4-series VMs trundle along at 80K IOPS.

The Azure Marketplace already includes some machine images that include the MANA driver on the following operating systems:

  • Ubuntu 20.04 LTS
  • Ubuntu 22.04 LTS
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux 8.8
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux 9.2
  • SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 15 SP4
  • Debian 12 “Bookworm”
  • Oracle Linux 9.0
  • Windows Server 2016
  • Windows Server 2019
  • Windows Server 2022

Sadly, it's unclear if "Azure Boost" is actually new, or just a brand Microsoft has cooked up as it debuts MANA. Competing cloud provider Amazon has branded its SmartNIC efforts "Nitro", so maybe Microsoft decided its accelerators and supporting software needed a brand, too.

Azure Boost's obscurities are moot, though, as Microsoft claims it can deliver data throughput at 12.5GB/sec and enable 650K IOPS, "by accelerated storage processing and exposing NVMe disk interfaces to VMs."

That speed, Microsoft argues, could mean some customers can downsize cloudy VMs, or the size of their VM fleet.

Users won't care what the tech that helps them achieve that is called. ®

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