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Project Volterra could encourage switch to Arm-based PCs

Project Volterra, due out later this year, is an Arm-based PC geared up for AI development. The energy-efficient, faster device might enable Microsoft to catch up with Apple.

Microsoft will release a refreshed Arm-based desktop PC for developers later this year. Project Volterra will speed up machine learning algorithms for data scientists and AI developers.

The vendor introduced the stackable PC, which can connect to multiple units for additional capabilities, last week at Microsoft Build, its annual software and web developer conference. The PC will enable developers to use Arm-native versions of Microsoft developer tools to build apps.

The small PCs, which look like Mac minis, are built from recycled ocean plastic. They are the first to integrate the gasconaded neural processing units (NPUs) -- a controversial name that some analysts view with skepticism. The chips, used in addition to CPUs and GPUs, make machine learning more efficient. The faster computational benefit and lower cost of PCs with Arm processors might encourage developers to try out the new product, but more tools are needed to cement adoption, according to industry experts.

Arm processors are widely used in mobile devices and Apple products. Although Microsoft has offered Arm-based PCs since 2017, adoption has been slow because of the low appeal of the offerings, said Bob O'Donnell, president and analyst at Technalysis Research. The renewed interest in Arm-based PCs is rooted in Microsoft's desire to catch up with and overtake Apple, he said.

Project Volterra and neural processing

The new PC -- which will be available later this year -- boasts a neural processor with "best-in-class" AI computing capacity, according to a promotional video shown during a keynote by Satya Nadella, executive chairman and CEO of Microsoft.

The NPU is a faster processor designed for more efficient machine learning -- one that could theoretically handle AI workloads should the technology ever evolve to self-awareness.

"I don't see that happening," said Chris Riley, senior manager of developer relations at marketing tech firm HubSpot. "If we get to the point of true AI ... then software developers will not exist because there's not going to be a need for it."

Additional tools might increase interest in Arm-based PC

In addition to the integrated NPU, Project Volterra's inclusion of tools like Visual Studio might encourage more widespread adoption than Microsoft's earlier attempts at Arm-based PCs, which were aimed at consumers and lacked a complete suite of developer tools, O'Donnell said. Microsoft also plans to help developers port more applications over to Arm-based environments, which might convince developers to make the switch, he said.

However, optimizing every application for Arm-based environments is a problem of scale. "There's hundreds and thousands of millions of applications out there. It's a big effort," O'Donnell said.

I would buy one just for fun. But you can run Kubernetes on Turing Pi as well. And that's supercool, but it's tinkering.
Chris RileySenior manager of developer relations, HubSpot

But Arm-based technology, with its lower cost, superior power efficiency and longer battery life, is here to stay, O'Donnell said, and he expects to see NPU-type accelerators in chips from both Intel and AMD soon.

Use case for developers is unclear

The integration of NPUs into PCs is a sign that Microsoft expects more developers to write NPU-powered apps, O'Donnell said.

However, Project Volterra is aimed at a particular niche -- AI researchers and developers, according to Microsoft documentation.

Outside of developing AI applications, Riley doesn't see a clear use case. While he sometimes finds that computational overhead slows down development, a slightly faster experience wouldn't be enough to make him switch to Arm-based technology, he said.

"I would buy one just for fun," Riley said. "But you can run Kubernetes on Turing Pi as well. And that's supercool, but it's tinkering."

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