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HP Moonshot: Micro Servers Versus Virtualisation

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Early users of HP’s Moonshot microservers buck the virtualisation trend, and early customers are in strange niches, says Peter Judge

Just how different is HP’s Moonshot server family from the other servers? You don’t realise till it dawns on you that the tech giant is actually swimming against one of the biggest tides in the industry: virtualisation.

Data centres have big servers that are getting more powerful, but they weren’t used very efficiently until virtualisation came along, allowing multiple workloads – multiple virtual servers – to be consolidated on a single piece of hardware. Moonshot, announced in April 2013, does the opposite. HP decided that for some uses, cheap silicon was the way to go, and built a system with shared power and networks, based around small system-on-a-chip server cartridges.

The end result is a system where servers don’t run multiple loads, and may not even be virtualised in the way we normally understand it.

The pitch is that this will be good for the kind of “scale out” applications created for the web, and Big Data applications where information is distributed across many cheap processing nodes. But customers are taking a while to materialise, and with something this new, it is hard to compare it against existing technology.

HP Moonshot Discovery Lab2Micro servers aren’t virtual?

All this sank in on a visit to HP’s Moonshot Discovery Lab in Grenoble earlier this month, when HP started to offer comparisons of Moonshot and alternative systems – and was starkly underlined by the user who stood up to extol the joys of microservers.

First, HP’s Ed Ellis showed off a system based on the m700, a specialised AMD cartridge for hosted desktop infrastructure (HDI). He showed it running six times faster than a conventional virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) system.  A video paused and froze when delivered through VDI, but ran smoothly over the Moonshot powered HDI.

The audience was quick to point out that this wasn’t actually surprising: the clue to the speedup was in the name of the technology. In a hosted system, each remote desktop gets its own micro server in the Moonshot box. In a virtual system, multiple users share a higher-powered server. So it’s not really surprising Moonshot serves desktops faster.

The real comparison would take into account the power and space demands, and maybe the cost of the system – which is what came next: we were introduced to a real HP Moonshot user: Christoph Herrnkind, chief operating officer of the German hosting company myLOC, which in the next week will start to offer dedicated servers based on Moonshot.

Moonshot replaces…. servers on shelves?

As detailed elsewhere, myLOC’s dedicated server business has been built up by assigning each user an individual tower server. Hundreds of them are arranged on shelves.

myloc hosting servers on shelvesThis frankly weird setup is apparently cheaper to buy: “Tower servers are cheaper than 19-inch rack servers, and shelves are cheaper than racks,” Herrnkind told us. The trouble is, he and his team need a vast warehouse, and have to do a lot of lifting and carrying, and plugging in hundreds of cables.

Moonshot certainly fixed these issues, but it also brought a downside: even low-power SoC based servers get hot if you pack them closely, and that’s what Moonshot does, so myLOC has had to add data centre-style external air cooling to keep its Moonshots down to 28C.

He also had to add a storage subsystem to mimic the inbuilt hard drives of the tower servers.

The bottom line is that myLOC now has 24 times as many servers per square metre, which use less power and are easier to manage. It rents them out at the same rate as before, and makes 28 percent more money on each server.

That may be an impressive story for myLOC, but an application like this doesn’t exactly fit the message HP wants to convey. While HP Moonshot is still new, the company can only work hard on offering demos at its Discovery Centre labs, while the early adopters will  show Moonshot working in niches.

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HP Labs Grenoble Moonshot

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Moonshot at the HP Grenoble Labs
HP's Moonshot is a new design. Potential users (and journalists) can kick its tyres at HP's labs in Grenoble