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Kurt Marko
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HP Moonshot: A Big Bet On Innovative Engineering

HP's Moonshot servers are a tour de force of engineering that aim to restore the company's innovation groove. Here are the details.

While Moonshot's hardware is impressive, perhaps the bigger story is HP's platform strategy, where the company is making the system the foundation for a future of customized hardware tailored to specific applications and workloads.

According to Jim Ganthier, VP of marketing, operations and general manager of HP's Industry Standard Servers and Software Business Unit, Moonshot is a platform for custom systems on a chip. By the end of the year, we'll see cartridges from AMD, Calxeda (ARM) and TI (DSPs) Future systems are likely to include GPUs (think VDI-in-a-box) and even FPGAs, essentially software-customizable hardware that could be tailored to specialized applications.

While sophisticated customers will be able to mix and match future cartridges to build systems for particular needs, HP plans to introduce product bundles tailored to specific applications. One could imagine a VDI system mixing compute, storage and GPU boards, while a data visualization or image processing system might include GPUs and DSPs.

The first third-party cartridge will be Calxeda's ARM-based server. The firm, which was one of HP's first Moonshot partners back at the project's November 2011 launch, will integrate four of its ECX-1000 servers with 1.4-GHz ARM A9 cores and 4-GB RAM into a single cartridge, meaning a single Moonshot chassis can hold 180 server nodes. While benchmarks against the Centerton chip aren't yet available, testing by Anandtech against the prior-generation dual core Atoms on integer processing workloads like compression and decompression found "clock for clock, the out-of-order Cortex-A9 inside the Calxeda EXC-1000 beats the in-order Atom core. A single Cortex-A9 has no trouble beating the older Atoms while likewise coming close to the much higher clocked N2800."

Anandtech went on to say, "A quad-core Cortex-A9 performs well in server workloads that are mostly memory-latency sensitive. A quad-core Cortex-A9 ECX-1000 at 1.4 GHz has no trouble competing with Atoms at slightly higher clockspeeds (1.6 GHz). There is only one exception: bandwidth intensive workloads." This means that given four times the density, ARM cartridges may prove to a better match to the type of Web front-end and scale-out applications than the Atom servers HP has developed.

To catalyze what HP hopes will be a quickening cycle of server innovation, with a goal of cutting the typical 18-to-24 month hardware cycle time six to nine months, the firm also introduced the HP Pathfinder Innovation Ecosystem with nearly 25 chip vendors and ISVs and a set of services including access to HP-operated labs (currently in Houston and Grenoble, with Singapore coming soon) where developers and customers can kick the tires, test and benchmark applications and learn about the Moonshot system.

Clearly, HP has seen what Facebook has spawned in the Open Compute Project and hopes to counter the move to a new generation of standardized, highly integrated white box hardware by cloud operators, service providers and other customers buying servers in bulk.

Whether Moonshot represents the future of high-density, customizable servers, or ends up being a one-off niche product, is an open question. However, by trotting out senior executives to lead the rollout, it's clear the product is strategically important to HP's future.

While there's a lot to like about the technology, particularly its high density, internal fabrics and host of connectivity options, its ultimate success depends upon building a broad hardware and software ecosystem and convincing customers that micro-servers don't mean substandard performance. It's a tall order as big, fast servers running scores of VMs have certainly become the norm, but it's good to see HP taking a stand and trying to once again be the leader in innovation rather than bad press.

Kurt Marko is an InformationWeek and Network Computing contributor and IT industry veteran, pursuing his passion for communications after a varied career that has spanned virtually the entire high-tech food chain from chips to systems. Upon graduating from Stanford University ... View Full Bio
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