An ion chamber houses the brains of a Honeywell quantum computer.

An ion chamber houses the brains of a Honeywell quantum computer.


Honeywell

Microsoft’s Azure Quantum service opened to the public on Monday, bringing the radically different computing technology to the world’s second-biggest cloud computing service. 

Azure Quantum includes quantum computers made by Honeywell and IonQ. These machines use a design called an ion trap that employs electrically charged atoms as qubits, the fundamental element used by quantum computers to store and process information. Microsoft plans to add another design by Quantum Circuits, whose qubits are supercooled electrical circuits, in the future.

Microsoft will eventually add its own homegrown quantum computers to the service. Its approach, called topological qubits, promises qubits that are more stable than those used in rival designs and are designed to allow quantum computations to run longer. Unlike rival quantum computer makers, Microsoft hasn’t yet demonstrated that technology, though.

The opening of Azure Quantum marks the latest step in the commercialization of quantum computing, which promises to tackle problems that are out of conventional machines’ reach. BMW, Airbus and Roche are among those trying out quantum computers, although it will be years before it’s practical for more than research projects.

“We need a large, scalable, reliable quantum computer,” said Krysta Svore, Microsoft Quantum’s general manager.

Still, some commercial applications are in testing.

BMW is seeing how well quantum computing can find the best combination of auto parts suppliers and the optimal placement of electric vehicle charging stations. Quantum computing holds promise for molecular engineering tasks like designing new chemical processes, drugs or materials. Svore hopes quantum computing can find a more efficient carbon fixation method, a technology that could advance Microsoft’s effort to fight climate change.

Microsoft also is working on a controller chip named Gooseberry to govern thousands of qubits, an important miniaturization step. Today’s machines only have a few dozen qubits at most, but they’ll need millions to tackle real quantum computing challenges. Intel has a rival quantum controller chip called Horse Ridge.

Azure, the second most widely used cloud computing service after Amazon Web Services and ahead of Google Cloud, isn’t the only cloud-based quantum service. Amazon has Braket, Google is doing the same with its quantum computers and IBM was the first with its Q network. The services are crucial for quantum computing because few companies have the expertise, hardware or budget to run quantum computers on their own.

Like other cloud computing services, Azure Quantum uses pay-as-you-go pricing, although the first hour is free and development use is cheaper. For now, Microsoft only offers pricing details for quantum annealing, a special-purpose quantum algorithm used to try to find optimum solutions to complex problems.

In a curious twist, quantum annealers from companies like D-Wave have inspired improvements to classical computers that simulate the same quantum operations. Microsoft offers such a service on Azure Quantum, at a cost of $500 per hour if you’re running a simulation for more than 1,000 hours.