HP's Project Moonshot aims for power-thrifty servers

The blade server specialist has put its weight behind a push to promote microservers, which are power efficient, designed for simple computational tasks and, in a worrying move for Intel, based on ARM chips
Written by Jack Clark, Contributor

HP has launched Project Moonshot, an effort to develop servers that accommodate thousands of processing cores, which share networking, storage, power, cooling, and management.

Project Moonshot, announced on Tuesday, aims to promote such microservers — which bring together several low-power chips to provide a high amount of computing density — as a product category. The multi-year project, which involves units across HP, could also help establish the blade server specialist as a leader in the technology.

The first release under the project is the Redstone Server Development Platform, which sees HP extend its ProLiant server range to microservers. These will initially be built out of energy-thrifty chips designed by Calxeda and based on Cambridge-based ARM's low-power architecture.

"Traditional computer architectures focus solely on ways to scale performance, yet what is needed is how to scale performance efficiently," Gary Thome, head of HP's industry-standard server strategy, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. "Traditional 'shared everything' and 'shared nothing' computer architectures both miss the mark. In contrast, Moonshot is targeted at sharing almost everything — at scale points never previously conceived. Of course, Moonshot is not for everyone."

HP is targeting the Moonshot technologies at companies that need vast fleets of servers to accomplish relatively simple jobs, such as handling cloud applications, social networks, simple content delivery or rentable computing power. The company calls this 'hyperscale computing'.

Traditional 'shared everything' and 'shared nothing' computer architectures both miss the mark. In contrast, Moonshot is targeted at sharing almost everything.
– Gary Thome, HP

The Redstone Server Development Platform is based on an SL6500 HP ProLiant chassis, with blades that plug into shared power, cooling and network fabric. The chassis can fit up to 18 quad-node blades inside, and each node can have up to four cores, giving the platform a maximum core count of 288.

Initially, these blades will have the Calxeda-designed ARM-based EnergyCore system-on-a-chip, but HP plans to bring out Intel Atom and AMD variants in the future. The server should be available to buy in the first half of 2012, HP said.

In addition to hardware, Project Moonshot covers a customer outreach programme and a push to involve other tech companies in research and development. HP plans to create drop-in centres across the world where prospective Redstone customers can test and benchmark applications on the server. The first lab is due to open in Houston, Texas in January, with others planned for Europe or Asia.

HP has also set up the HP Pathfinder Program, which seeks to create open industry standards for microservers. AMD, Canonical, ARM, Calxeda and Red Hat are the initial partners, with more due to be announced.

Intel's wake-up call

"It's significant that HP has made this announcement. It has clearly seen customer demand and is predicting extreme low-power servers will be applicable to up to 15 percent of total unit server sales over time, which is a sizable market," John Abbott, chief analyst at the 451 Group, told ZDNet UK.

"By choosing ARM-Calxeda, and opting for a more radical architecture than Intel's microserver proposals, it's also taking something of a stand against Intel's position, which is that low-power CPUs won't be used as a replacement for Xeons in enterprises and datacentres," he added.

Intel has a few advantages over ARM, according to Abbott. Because Intel owns its own semiconductor foundries, it is faster at developing process technologies — like its tri-gate technology — to make its chips than ARM is. It also has its many-integrated core processor that promises to put around 50 low-powered cores on a single chip, designed to handle tasks such as simple web applications, rendering and web apps.

Despite this, Intel should be worried by HP's move, Abbott believes.

"Atom is far less efficient, and ARM has long-established strategies for saving power that Intel hasn't touched on, including idle-time power consumption and its recently announced 'Big.Little' chip pairings," he said.

Forrester analyst Richard Fichera agreed, saying the move should serve as a "giant wake-up call" for x86-specialists Intel and AMD.

"The studied silence and nonchalance over the past year with which [Intel] responded to any inquiries about the impact of ARM competition had me convinced that they were actually quite worried," he wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. "But being concerned in the abstract and having your No 1 customer endorse not only your competition but an entirely new architecture are two different things entirely."

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