HP On Its Moonshot Server: Biggest Market Challenge Is Changing Mind-Sets

Hewlett-Packard's Moonshot servers may be the company's biggest and most ambitious rethinking of server architecture in the past decade. While traditional server innovation has focused on speeds and feeds, HP is taking a radical departure from the server status quo.

At the heart of the Moonshot server is the platform itself, which manages to cram 45 Intel server cartridges into a 4.3U chassis alongside two network switches. It's a high-density ecosystem that weaves together use-specific jobs, local chassis fabric and a converged infrastructure.

"The market dynamics are changing and we are seeing more opportunities for workload-specific servers," said Bob Venero, CEO of Holbrook, N.Y.-based solution provider Future Tech. "We have built an entire practice around media solutions called Future Tech Modern Media Solutions. Moonshot is at its core."

[Related: Moonshot: HP's Bold Rethinking Of The Server]

Sponsored post

For Moonshot --a name borrowed from NASA's historic Apollo Moon program -- HP says the sky is the limit as more companies are seeking custom solutions. But today, analysts and HP concede, the market for Moonshot is young and relatively small.

Research firm IDC reports that the market for high-density power-efficient microservers, a close cousin to Moonshot, represents less than 10 percent of the market.

But among those that sell high-density servers, such as HP, Dell, Cisco Systems, Huawei and SuperMicro, HP is considered the market maker, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group. "As players like AMD drop out of this space, HP has emerged as the biggest player. It’s a brand-new server architecture and a lot of companies are just now seeing how high-density solutions can compete with traditional one-size-fits-all data centers,’ said Enderle.

HP, however, said it's seeing success targeting specialized workloads that include media processing, virtual desktops and big data and analytics. HP won’t reveal Moonshot sales figures, but counts dozens of impressive sales wins such as Sandia National Labs, PayPal and the University of Utah.

HP said that today more than 200 partners resell Moonshot with about 20 solution providers, Future Tech among them, selling the bulk of systems. Moonshot's chief selling point comes from the likes of customers such as 20th Century Fox, which uses Moonshot servers to transcode, transfer and distribute terabytes of video data.

"With HP Moonshot, we've been able to reduce our data center space by 50 percent, power and cooling by 87 percent, and hardware costs by 57 percent compared to traditional infrastructure," said John Herbert, CIO of 20th Century Fox, in a testimonial.

To understand how HP achieves those efficiencies, one needs to slide open one of the blades on the one of the servers. What you’ll find is one 4.3U chassis capable of running 180 servers driven by a 45 quad-core cartridge.

It's that type of density paired with HP's underlying networking fabric that can help companies such as PayPal deliver real-time analytics of text-based event streams at an extremely cost-effective level. PayPal uses HP’s m800 cartridge based on Texas Instruments' system-on-a-chip with four ARM cores and eight DSP cores.

Depending on the targeted workload, each Moonshot cartridge can run either AppliedMicro ARM, Intel Xeon and Atom, and Texas Instruments DSP ARM boards. Users can even mix and match different boards (called cartridges) inside the same chassis, with some limitations when running both a high-speed cartridge from Intel and ARM.

With that type of processing power, internal speeds of Moonshot are vitally important, with a 45 internal cartridge environment that drives staggering amounts of data between nodes and off chassis. That's where the latest Moonshot switch, model 45XGc, comes in. It supports 45 1GbE and 180 1GbE internal connections, with up to two switch modules supported per chassis.

Linking those 45 processor slots in a way that doesn’t require a small team of administrators for management is where HP's longtime deep bench of server architecture know-how comes in handy.

Moonshot's secret sauce is the fact the server architecture is able to marry specific workloads with optimized hardware for maximum efficiency for specific jobs such as Web server, transcoding or analytics.

As for pricing, the highly customizable nature of the platform creates a wide gulf between prices. But it’s important to note that whether users are purchasing a $150,000 chassis with 45 64-bit cartridges or a cartridge with 45 Intel Atom cartridges for $15,000, HP’s real advantage comes from lowering the operating costs.

In the case of Moonshot, HP departs from its enterprise management system that has typically included a hybrid GUI and command line interface. Instead, for Moonshot it opted for the simpler browser-based interface built on top of the Representational State Transfer (a.k.a. REST) interface. It's that type of management of cartridges and compute that have partners such as Future Tech's Venero to call Moonshot "a software-defined server" that delivers a "server farm in a box."

But what Moonshot has going for it in innovation, it lacks in mainstream adoption -- at least for now. Within HP, Moonshot is still considered in "startup mode," said Tom Bradicich, vice president of engineering at HP, Palo Alto, Calif. "Moonshot is not a volume play; it's a value play. While 200 partners have access to Moonshot, we are only working with 20 partners today to really be strategic with,’ he said.

Bradicich said HP is taking a white-glove approach with partners to seed and prove the market with Moonshot deployments that highlight its strength in growth areas -- media processing, virtual hardware infrastructure, and data analytics -- for the server platform.

"The biggest challenge going to market is changing mind-sets," said Nigel Church, Moonshot product marketing. "Enterprises who adopt Moonshot see real business benefits -- we provide compelling differentiated value in key solutions areas around mobile workspace, media processing and big data," Church said.

Moonshot is a converged system and brings a certain level of cost with it, said Patrick Moorhead, principal research analyst at Moor Insights & Strategies. "It's not a simple rack. So the challenge is to find the right workload that gives a 5X to 10X differential advantage. So there's an education ramp," he said.

To help move the needle, HP is working with HP partners such as Sify Technologies and Future Tech. HP partner enablement for Sify has included HP and Sify engineers working side-by-side on customer RFPs and a go-to-market reference architecture.

Sify, a $200 million solution provider based in India with U.S. headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., sees the Moonshot market potential within banking, finance and data apps such as Cassandra and NoSQL. "From a customer standpoint, Moonshot may be very workload-specific, but still its beauty is its data center versatility,’ said Vijay Bellam, vice president of solutions and services delivery at Sify and a former Moonshot engineer with HP.

Sify said it does about $9 million in sales in the U.S. and hopes to drive sales by as much as $2 million over the next 12 months with Moonshot.

While Moonshot defies traditional server categories, it's a close cousin of microservers -- servers that use multiple mobile low-power processors and take up less space, allowing companies to fit more nodes into a single data farm -- thereby reducing cooling costs.

HP takes umbrage at the comparison, saying that a microserver relies on low-powered chips but Moonshot scales up to use powerful Intel processors, GPUs as well as low-watt RISC processors.

"You can't call it a microserver," said Susan Blocher, vice president of HP Moonshot marketing. "You can call it an ultra-converged system because we literally take convergence to a new level. We have converged GPU into the silicon, we have put storage onto the board, we have put networking into the fabric. You can't get more converged than this."

This article originally appeared as an exclusive on the CRN Tech News App for iOS and Windows 8.