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.

Kurt Marko

April 10, 2013

7 Min Read
Network Computing logo

In a sign that innovation is still in the company's DNA, HP has unveiled its first production Moonshot microserver--a bold move that CEO Meg Whitman says "marks the beginning of a new style of IT that will change the infrastructure economics and lay the foundation for the next 20 billion [connected] devices." The product's name is an apt metaphor for the type of initiative HP needs to propel itself back to mindshare, if not market leadership. IDC estimates its server revenue fell an estimated 3.2% year-over-year in the fourth quarter, after a precipitous 11.9% decline in Q3.

Technically, Moonshot is an engineering tour de force of the kind HP was once famous for. It starts with an oddly-sized 4.3U (7.5-inch) chassis with slots for 45 server boards, what HP calls cartridges. Like a blade server, the chassis provides shared power, cooling, interconnect and management. However, unlike typical blade designs the cartridges plug in vertically to a slide-out chassis.

The blade comparisons end there because, as HP's Moonshot white paper points out [PDF], the chassis hosts not one, but three independent backplane networks: an Ethernet switching fabric, storage interconnect and what HP calls a cluster fabric. The shipping Moonshot 1500 system includes two removable Ethernet switch modules, supporting four Gigabit links to each switch, though the first server cartridge only includes two Gigabit Ethernet ports. The storage network supports up to four SAS or SATA links, two of which route to external, shared storage and two of which are used for internal, cartridge-to-cartridge interconnects.

Moonshot's cluster fabric is unique and clearly designed to future-proof the platform, as it's unclear how extensively it's used by the first-generation server boards. According to HP's white paper, it's a two-dimensional topology in which "groups of three server cartridges are connected north-south in independent rings and groups of 15 server cartridges are connected east-west in independent rings." There are four lanes in each direction, providing 16 total, that are configured by the cartridge hardware to use one of a variety of supported protocols including PCIe, Ethernet or SAS. However, this means that in the future, when it's possible to mix different cartridge types, system designers will have to pay close attention to how each chooses to use the cluster fabric and do extensive system integration testing.

Which brings us to the server cartridges. HP is able to pack 45 system boards in such a small space by using low-power Centerton Atom S1260 processors, a server-oriented variant of Intel's play for a slice of the tablet market. Unlike current ARM CPUs, the S1260 is a 64-bit x86 part with two hyperthreaded cores (for four total threads) running at 2 GHz and supporting up to 8 GB of ECC RAM, while sipping a mere 8.5 watts. According to this analysis at Anandtech of early performance data from Intel and HP, "performance is going to be heavily dependent on the nature of the workload, with the S1200 designed for and excelling at heavily threaded, simple tasks, while coming up short in lightly threaded scenarios that need bigger, faster cores."

[ Join us at Interop Las Vegas for access to 125+ IT sessions and 300+ exhibiting companies. Register today! ]

Indeed, according to Dave Donatelli, executive vice president and general manager of HP's Enterprise group, that's exactly the workload Moonshot is targeting with this first cartridge: Web hosting, cloud services and scale-out applications in high-performance computing and data visualization. Given the Atom's modest compute resources, Moonshot servers must be dedicated to a single task. There's no virtualization support at this point, although Gerald Kleyn, director, Hyperscale Server Hardware R&D at HP, says as the cartridge portfolio fills out, it does plan to eventually support VMware, KVM and OpenStack.

The real value of Moonshot isn't horsepower, but density, efficiency and cost. HP claims the product uses one-ninth the power and takes an eighth the space at about a quarter the cost of conventional x86 servers. With the shared backplane, integrated management interface, use of HP's iLO remote consoles and support by HP Cluster management software, it's actually feasible to operate a rack stuffed with hundreds of servers, and may be no more complex than a comparable rack of blades.

Next page: HP's Platform StrategyWhile 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.

About the Author(s)

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox
More Insights