Microsoft got where it is by ensuring that Windows ran on many different types of hardware. Monday, the company said its cloud computing platform will soon offer access to the most exotic hardware of all: quantum computers.
Microsoft is one of several tech giants investing in quantum computing, which by crunching data using strange quantum mechanical processes promises unprecedented computational power. The company is now preparing its Azure cloud computing service to offer select customers access to three prototype quantum computers, from engineering conglomerate Honeywell and two startups, IonQ, which emerged from the University of Maryland, and QCI, spun out of Yale.
Microsoft does not claim those quantum computers are ready to do useful work. Existing quantum hardware is too puny. But like rivals IBM and Google, Microsoft executives say developers and corporations should start playing with quantum algorithms and hardware now to help the industry learn what the technology is good for.
“We know that we’re not going to come up with the whole landscape of possible solutions; we need a global community,” says Krysta Svore, general manager for Microsoft Quantum.
Microsoft’s new service, christened Azure Quantum, integrates quantum programming tools the company released previously with its cloud service. Coders can run quantum code on simulated quantum hardware, or real quantum hardware from Honeywell, IonQ, or QCI.
Microsoft announced the new service Monday at its Ignite conference in Orlando, saying it would launch in coming months. The company’s partners will run their quantum computers in their own facilities, but link them into Microsoft’s cloud over the internet. Microsoft has a long-running quantum research program of its own but it is yet to produce any quantum computing hardware.
Azure Quantum has similarities to a service from IBM, which has offered free and paid access to prototype quantum computers since 2016. Google, which said last week that one of its quantum processors had achieved a milestone known as “quantum supremacy” by outperforming a top supercomputer, has said it will soon offer remote access to quantum hardware to select companies.
Microsoft’s program differs in that it offers access to several different quantum computing technologies, in what could be a preview of the future of the quantum computing market.
Because quantum hardware is tricky to operate, most companies using it are expected to do so via a cloud service rather than buying or building their own quantum computers. IBM and Google have so far talked only about offering customers access to their own hardware.
Microsoft’s model is more like the existing computing industry, where cloud providers allow customers to choose processors from companies such as Intel and AMD, says William Hurley, CEO of startup Strangeworks, which offers a service for programmers to build and collaborate with quantum computing tools from IBM, Google, and others. “At the point we’re at in the development of quantum computing as an industry you want to try as many things as possible,” he says.
Microsoft’s hardware partners represent two leading but different ways of building quantum computers. Honeywell and IonQ encode data using individual ions trapped in electromagnetic fields, while QCI uses superconducting metal circuits, an approach also favored by IBM and Google.
Microsoft’s model for the quantum cloud could also solve a problem for companies making progress on quantum hardware, like Honeywell or several richly funded startups, that don’t have cloud businesses of their own and may find it hard to attract customers. “This allows us to focus on what we are best at, making best-in-class quantum computers,” says Peter Chapman, CEO of Microsoft partner IonQ. The startup’s early customers include Dow Chemical, which wants to use quantum computers to solve chemistry problems.
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