Moonshot: Can HP's shot at microserver domination succeed?

With Moonshot HP is hoping its decisive move into the microserver market will leave the competition struggling to catch up. But is there the market out there that HP is counting on?
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

With HP's release of its Moonshot server yesterday the company is attempting to secure a slice of the fast-growing microserver market and win back customers from the lower cost ODM server makers. But can it succeed?

Moonshot servers are designed to tackle specific hyperscale workloads, lightweight computing tasks that need to be carried out in huge numbers, such as serving content to a popular web page or app.

The cost of running and buying the server hardware to deliver these tasks can rapidly escalate with demand, particularly when using traditional x86 1U servers whose powerful CPUs can draw more than 90W under load.

Wimpy cores

The first Moonshot microserver, the 1500. Image: HP

HP believes the answer lies in Moonshot's modular, microserver architecture. Moonshot systems rely on server cartridges based on wimpy cores, stripped of extraneous components and shrunk to drive power consumption down to sub-10w levels, allowing them to be packed into dense processing clusters that share power, cooling and network infrastructure.

Yesterday the firm launched the first in the Moonshot microserver range, the 1500, which can pack 450 Intel Atom Centerton S1200-based cartridges into a single rack.

Through Moonshot HP hopes to have a major stake in the ultra-dense server market, the only part of the server market where analyst house IDC is predicting significant growth in the coming years. The firm forecasts 14.2 percent CAGR in shipments of units of ultra-dense servers between 2008 and 2017, compared to -1.3% CAGR for unit shipments of all other types of servers during the same period.

Will the web giants bite?

The question remains as to how tempting Moonshot's systems will be and whether the web giants like Facebook and Google — arguably the companies with the largest demands for hyperscale workloads — will be buying Moonshot servers.

These companies are already designing their own datacentre hardware and getting them built via ODMs. Facebook recently kitted out an entire datacentre with hardware based on designs produced by Open Compute, while Google and AWS have long designed their own server infrastructure. Proponents of Open Compute believe its designs will spread beyond early backers like Facebook and Rackspace: Rackspace's COO Mark Roenigk predicted that at least one-third of new servers installs will be based on Open Compute designs by 2016.

However Paul Santeler, general manager of HP's hyperscale business group, believes Moonshot takes away the rationale for companies bypassing HP and going direct to ODMs to build lower cost white box hardware.

"It's really simple. What you've seen with Open Compute and some of the others is they've repackaged commodity servers," he said.

"They're 1U, 2P (two processor) boxes, they are a little smaller, and a little thinner and they said you can save five per cent by going to an ODM."

Santeler said tailoring each Moonshot server architecture to a specific hyperscale workloads allows for efficiencies that can't be matched by more general purpose hardware.

"What we've done is totally re-architected the solution. We'll save you 60, 70, 80 percent in power, cost and space. We've innovated to create a new architecture versus what everyone else is doing, which is just trying to package the same old stuff. The same old stuff is not optimised for the application."

How Moonshot became

HP began work on Moonshot in its labs about four years ago, which Santeler said gives it an advantage over new server architecture designs coming out of Open Compute, for example Open Compute's recently announced Group Hug slot architecture, which would allow server motherboards to accept Arm SoCs, AMD or Intel chips.

"I've only seen one solution that comes anywhere close to what Moonshot is that's not a repackaging and that's what Open Compute announced as their Group Hug. But what they announced with Group Hug was they had put chips on Mylar boards and said 'We have a concept, we have a dream'. We had a dream two years ago and we started on that dream and now what we have is a creative solution and I have nearly the entire industry supporting it.

"Great idea but a little bit late. But it validates the concept of having application-specific processor cartridge boards linked together across the fabric."

Dave Chalmers, chief technologist for HP's enterprise group in EMEA, said Moonshot goes some way towards providing the application-specific architecture that hosting and web-facing companies of Google and Facebook's have previously had to design themselves and build through ODMs.

"One of the reasons why they went to that space in the first place, a lot of it was about 'I can't get exactly what I want'. That's one of the reasons that we think Moonshot is particularly attractive, because the economics of being able to configure a cartridge for exactly your requirement is completely different from building a traditional server to your own requirement," he said.

"For the workloads that make sense you'll be able to configure it to exactly what you do. If you've got a social media site or a big web farm, with Moonshot you can configure without that horrible price penalty you had in the past. It's a very different model."

Giorgio Nebuloni, research manager for the European enterprise server group for analyst group IDC, said the modular design of cartridges and the shared, removable power, cooling and networking gave HP the edge over competing microserver designs.

"With this product launch I have the impression that HP has what no-one else has in the market," he said.

Moonshot's design

The Moonshot server chassis is designed to work with cartridges based on Intel and AMD x86 architectures, as well as Arm Risc-based SoCs, and even more unusual server silicon like FPGAs and GPUs. Power, fans and network switches sit at the rear of the chassis and can be swapped out to meet the demands of the different cartridges.

"We have a mechanism whereby you put a new cartridge in and it identifies itself, says 'this is what I look like and this is the infrastructure I need'," said Santeler.

"We spent a lot of time designing that system so we could do cartridge design very rapidly."

This flexible chassis design and HP's partnerships with Intel, AMD and a range of ARM SoC makers to make cartridges based on different flavours of x86 and Arm Risc processor architectures will allow HP to deliver three to four new Moonshot cartridges, each targeted at a different hyperscale workloads, every year said Santeler.

The Moonshot 1500 is suited to hosting small server workloads or serving static elements of web pages, but later Moonshot servers will be tailored to different tasks. 

HP plans to release a tranche of Moonshot cartridges this year: a quad processor cartridge using the 32-bit ARM Cortex-A15 based 66AK2H chip from TI, focused on providing digital signal processing to telcos, oil and gas companies and advanced voice analysis for government agencies; a quad processor cartridge using Intel's 22nm Avoton processor, which will be able to serve dynamic web content; and an AMD-based cartridge with integrated APUs (Accelerated Processing Units) focused on gaming and video transcoding, as well as a quad processor cartridge using a 32-bit Cortex A9 Calxeda SoC that can scale up to 1,800 nodes per rack.

The importance of getting the large-scale web properties on board with Moonshot may be diminished by the fact HP sees a market for Moonshot beyond hosting and web serving.

HP is already targeting a variety of different workloads with future Moonshot releases, and as software evolves further applications could become suited to Moonshot's parallel processing architecture. Santeler says that many new NoSQL databases used to deliver real time data to modern web sites and apps, such as CouchDB used by the BBC, with their scalable design are a good fit for Moonshot clusters.

"It's a question of whether you architected that application to be scalable across multiple nodes," he said.

"The older enterprise apps usually aren't, the newer next generation apps driving the internet are. Oracle database? Never. CouchDB, works like a charm," he said, adding that newer 'web 2.0' applications are also generally written in interpreted languages that are portable between both x86 and ARM's Risc architectures.

While microservers will enjoy growth traditional rack, blade and tower servers will continue to make up the bulk of the server market, microservers are expected to account for no more than one-fifth of server sales by 2015/16, as enterprise software like Oracle databases or SAP ERP systems are not designed to run on microservers' lower power, parallel processing infrastructure.

However Santeler believes that analyst predictions on microservers' market share fail to take into account newer uses for the architecture.

"There's a lot of new TAMs [total addressable markets] that aren't even touched yet. Analysts are looking at just the current market. If you look at telcos, that's a $20bn-plus marketplace that's using old architecture and looking for a new way, so they look at the TI DSP (digital signal processing) and say 'Come talk to us'. There are TAMs that are huge and disruptive."

He said that some future Moonshot releases will use what he calls "heavier" processors than the low-power CPUs of the early releases, extending Moonshot's reach to new classes of applications not suited today.

About 50 customers have been experimenting with running workloads on HP's first generation Moonshot servers, running Arm Cortex A9-based Calxeda ECX-1000 SoCs. Pricing starts at $61,875 for the Moonshot 1500 system, which includes one chassis, 45 Intel Atom S1200 cartridges. Between five and 10 customers are using Moonshot 1500 servers in production in Europe.

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