HP is trying to grab a slice of the high density computing market with a proprietary server design called Moonshot. The company describes Moonshot as "the world's first software defined server, designed and tailored for specific workloads."
To understand what this is, it's important to be clear about what it is not. HP's use of the term "software defined" has nothing to do with the current trend towards software defined networking (SDN) and software defined storage – two technologies that rely on virtualisation.
"When we use the term software, we are talking about applications," explains Paul Morgan, Hyperscale Business Manager at HP. "Rather than using generic rack or blade servers, with Moonshot we design server cartridges to run particular applications."
This promises to provide savings from lower power usage and higher utilisation in data centres; and with a competitive market these could well be passed on to businesses of all sizes that use the services.
That means a web serving cartridge will be different from a back end database cartridge or a big data analysis cartridge. The Moonshot system is processor neutral, and companies will be able to choose the most appropriate processor – x86, ARM, Intel, AMD or whatever – for a given application along with the most appropriate storage and memory configuration.
HP's first production offering is a cartridge with low powered Intel dual core Atom S1200 chips designed for web serving and simple content delivery, but Morgan expects that new cartridges will be released on a cycle of about four to five months. The cartridges themselves are about the size of PCI Express cards, and each one can host either one or four servers.
Moonshot cartridges slot in to a proprietary 4.3U Moonshot chassis that includes traditional components including the fabric, HP Integrated Lights-Out (iLo) management, power supply and cooling fans. Morgan says that a full chassis of 45 low power servers will use just 1-2 KW of power.
"That means there will be a significant cost saving in both space and power over conventional server installations," he says. A full rack can support up to 1,800 densely packed Moonshot servers.
Despite the high level of customisation, Morgan says each cartridge will be cost-effective for the companies that buy them because they will have the resources to do exactly what's needed of them – no more and no less.
The Moonshot concept is interesting because Facebook, Google and other companies with a massive internet presence have taken a very different approach to coping with the cost, space and power requirements of large numbers of servers.
Facebook, for example, has gone back to its hacker roots to design a low cost server. The designs have been handed over to the Open Compute Project (OCP) Foundation, a non-profit organisation whose board includes representatives from companies like Intel, Rackspace, Goldman Sachs and Arista Networks, and of course Facebook.
The foundation has formalised Facebook's designs into OCP specifications, which are freely available for anyone to suggest improvements. The result is low cost, no-frills compute units which pack plenty of computing power.
The principal behind the OCP server designs is to avoid the "gratuitous differentiation" that most vendors incorporate into their products to justify their high prices, according to Frank Frankovsky, Facebook's vice president of hardware design and supply chain. This includes proprietary management features that some vendors supply, but which only work in homogeneous server environments.
"Proprietary management wreaks havoc in environments like ours," explains Frankovsky.
OCP standards-compliant servers are mostly manufactured in the Far East and sold direct to companies like Facebook at wafer thin margins. They are also available to much smaller companies that want to take advantage of the low cost of the servers, and don't mind sacrificing the "gratuitous differentiation" as a quid pro quo.
That's bad news for established server vendors like HP and Dell, and it could well be the reason that HP has felt the need to launch its own, proprietary high density computing solution in the form of Moonshot.
Moonshot is unlikely to appeal to very large organisations like Facebook or Google that have hundreds of thousands of servers running in their data centres and the resources to support and manage generic OCP servers, but it may strike a chord with organisations that have a few thousand servers in their data centres, according to Richard Fichera, an analyst at Forrester Research.
"If you buy OCP servers from a supplier in Taiwan you get little or no support. You would also have to license a third party management system or use an open source management stack and figure it out yourself or pay for support," he says.
A major trend in enterprise computing over the last few years has been towards server virtualisation, and one of the biggest drivers for this has been a desire to increase server utilisation rates. Moonshot increases utilisation rates in a different way, by slimming each physical server down to just the level that's required for its workload.
The benefit is that Moonshot customers can avoid the virtualisation processing overhead, virtualisation software licence fees, and the additional virtualisation management layer, says Fichera. "If you have lightweight workloads that you don't want to virtualise, then Moonshot is a very valid high density platform," he adds.
Other benefits of Moonshot could be the energy efficiency of the cartridges and that it gives companies the ability to scale out their operations without needing significant power and space upgrades. But whether these companies will want to be tied to a single vendor for their servers and the chassis that support them remains to be seen.
Views differ on whether Moonshot will appeal to small and midsized businesses. HP's Morgan says it will, but Fichera disagrees, arguing that the small number of companies of this size that need a high density computing infrastructure are more likely to turn to co-location facilities (or even the cloud).
"Maybe it would interest smaller companies if they brought out a chassis with both servers and storage servers so it was like a data centre in a box, but HP don't have any plans to do that," he concludes.
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