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HP Moonshot and Dell microservers mark the next wave of innovation

Client device innovation over the past several years has sparked a new wave of server innovation with Dell microservers and HP's Moonshot.

The idea of deploying microservers to handle specific workloads appeals to IT professionals in terms of compute efficiency and cost. But such systems need to grow beyond the conceptual stage before companies pull the trigger on purchases.

Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Project Moonshot servers, described by HP as a string of "software-defined servers" intended to run Internet-scale applications, are fueled by a series of different processors, including low-power ARM chips, as well as Intel Corp.'s Atom processor and others based on a system-on-a-chip, or SoC, design.

HP delivered its first ProLiant Moonshot server powered by the Atom S1200 Centerton chip last month, with more coming later this year and next.

These systems have some industry observers speculating that after a long dormant period, server technology could be on the verge of a much-needed comeback. With the pace of innovation over the past several years on the client side, spearheaded by smart phones and tablets, it is important, if not necessary, that servers pick up the innovation pace.

"To understand what is going on with servers in the data center, you must understand what has happened on the client side of the market," said Andrew Feldman, general manager and corporate vice president for the Server Business Unit of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). "From 1995 to 2009, no one cared about servers at all, but now there is all this innovation and focus on them."

The ultimate goal with HP Moonshot servers is to produce a wide-enough range of server cartridges to support a catalog of individual workloads that would be much more narrowly defined than what is supported with a two-socket Intel Xeon or Opteron servers from AMD, according to HP.

While Moonshot is an interesting system-architecture concept, applications must be structured to take advantage of a large number of lower-performance microserver systems, said Mark Eisenberg, a technical consultant to large IT shops. "That is exactly the discussion people have around cloud computing today," he said.

Another IT professional agreed that application compatibility could pose a problem, given the number of older off-the-shelf and internally developed server applications there are.

"I am pretty sure my application architects wouldn't go along with this," said one IT director at a large Atlanta-based soft drink bottler. "We buy a fair number of off-the-shelf software that isn't architected to run in this sort of environment, especially ARM processors. We could end up running it on a single server, which I imagine would run pretty poorly."

By design, Moonshot servers can improve the performance and reliability of workloads involving cloud computing and big data, and can better manage the explosion of mobile devices across the enterprise, according to HP. They should support chips from a range of vendors, including Intel, ARM, Calxeda, Texas Instruments and AMD, as will existing ProLiant servers.

With a common framework that incorporates the HP Pathfinder Innovation Ecosystem, the new infrastructure now fully contained in the Moonshot chassis, and compliance with such standards as the Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI), company officials think the new servers will work smoothly together.

In addition to sharing the IPMI interface, the servers can run common operating systems. HP will also support the Apache Web Server and Java virtual machines, and the standard tools people use to create applications across their environments, said Ed Turkel, an HP spokesperson.

As many shops look to offer more scalable applications and services, the trend to hyper-scale-out environments is escalating, which figures to raise power costs and demand more physical space.

Moonshot servers improve the compute efficiencies of IT shops and scale-out data centers, and lower their costs. HP claims it can fit 1,800 Moonshot servers into a single rack and will use as much as 89% less power than existing systems.

Company officials declined to provide pricing for the four servers to be delivered later this year. However, pricing for the existing ProLiant Moonshot 1500 containing 45 Intel Atom-based server cartridges starts at $61,875 and includes an integrated switch. Company officials said the system generally costs 77% less than traditional servers, including its HP ProLiant servers.

Dell: We were here first

HP isn't the only major hardware vendor to deliver these systems.

Dell Inc., HP's rival in the server market, delivered its first systems based on low-power, scale-out processors almost five years ago. Its latest generation of microservers, the C5000 chassis, launched two years ago. It can house up to 12 PowerEdge servers powered by Intel's Xeon processor with up to 32 gigabytes of memory.

Company officials claim Dell's experience has helped it zero in on what corporate users want from these systems, pushing it higher up on the learning curve than HP and others.

Given the range of chip architectures that HP includes in its Moonshot family, some of the workloads make more sense than others, including low-end cold storage and front-end Web servers, said Drew Schulke, marketing director for Dell's Data Center Solutions group.

Schulke believes HP has overshot with Moonshot. 

"They seem to paint Moonshot in a very broad brush in terms of it being good at doing so many things," he said. "Frankly, that is not going to be the case." 

As some IT professionals do, he cautions HP and others not to put too much emphasis on ARM-based servers too soon because these systems lack compatibility with many applications.

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