Aiming for the moon: HP's Moonshot alternative to full virtualisation

The cloud revolution of the last decade has rested primarily on the ability to separate software from hardware using virtual machines.

A pool of server cores can then be doled out dynamically, mimicking a wide variety of operating environments and software installations. The ability to fire up a virtual machine in a few minutes, remotely, has been the fundamental technology that has allowed the cloud to become the flexible service we now take for granted.

But for many applications, sharing compute power across multiple virtual machines can lead to performance and security issues. This is what HP's Moonshot system was designed to combat.

One of the key factors that makes virtualisation work is that the hardware it runs on has to be as generic as possible. Any optimisation in one area may well have a negative impact on another, so the hardware needs to provide the "lowest common denominator" that will suit all uses equally - jack of all trades, but master of none.

A server designed to deliver multiple virtual machines will also have a large initial cost. Although it will be very flexible once installed, purchasing such a system in the first place can be expensive and once it reaches its limits a further expensive purchase is likely to be necessary.

Adding a rack unit or multiple extra blades to the server provision will be another step up in cost, even with a standards-based cloud system such as HP's Helion OpenStack, which can run on a wide variety of hardware.

For many types of service, adding compute power and features in smaller increments as required could make a lot more sense.

HP Moonshot aims to deliver this via a range of cartridge-based options, which are optimised for specific workloads. For example, a back-end database will have different needs than a web server or real-time video transcoding.

A virtual machine can usually be configured to mimic different numbers of processors and RAM quantities, for example, but the overall host system may need to share the resources it has on offer between virtual machines that could collectively need more than the grand total of resources available when put together.

Managing this adds a processing overhead, and there are licensing cost implications too.

With HP Moonshot, servers are provided with exactly the resources they need for the intended applicatino. There are now eight different options available, which work in tandem with the HP Moonshot 1500 Chassis, a 4.3U unit with room for 45 cartridges that are fully hot-pluggable and can be serviced individually.

The Chassis supports these with its own built-in pair of networking switches using a radial fabric pathway, with each switch sporting six 10GB Ethernet ports.

There are five dual-rotor fan modules and four power supplies, all of which are hot pluggable. So there is plenty of redundancy to ensure the cartridges will be kept running in the event of hardware failure.

The HP Moonshot cartridges cover many of the common applications for a server. The HP ProLiant m350 is aimed at Web hosting, whilst the m300 is aimed at Web application infrastructure, and the m400 focuses on Web caching.

The HP ProLiant m710 can be configured with Citrix XenApp to provide application-as-a-service, or for video transcoding, whilst the m700 provides hosted remote desktop infrastructure via HP ConvergedSystem 100.

The HP ProLiant m800 can be configured for real-time data processing, or as a development platform for telecommunications companies.

This wide flexibility relies on the fact that HP Moonshot is agnostic about processor, storage and memory configuration.

These can be specified on a per-cartridge basis, and the mixing of heterogeneous platforms is perfectly possible, so a single Chassis can provide any combination of the possible server types available from the cartridge options.

For example, the ProLiant m300 sports a 2.4GHz eight-core Intel Atom C2750 processor alongside up to 32GB of memory, and either a 1TB conventional hard disk or 240GB solid state disk, making it ideal for its intended use for Web applications.

But the m350 uses the more modest 1.7GHz Intel Atom C2730, which is also eight-core but consumes just over half the power.

The m350 also supports four M.2 solid state disks up to 64GB apiece, making it better suited to providing multiple individual Web servers, each with their own dedicated storage. In fact, with four servers per m350 cartridge, a single Moonshot 1500 Chassis can provide 180 individual servers.

The m400, in contrast, relies on a 2.4GHz eight-core AppliedMicro X-Gene system on a chip, with 64GB of memory and up to 480GB of M.2 solid state disk storage, for rapid Web caching.

The m700 provides four 1.5GHz quad-core AMD Opteron X2150 APUs, each with 8GB of RAM and 64GB of solid state storage. A single m700 cartridge therefore supports four remote desktop users, so a fully stocked Chassis can support 180 users via HP's ConvergedSystem 100.

The m710 cartridge uses a 1.8GHz Intel Xeon E3-1284Lv3 quad-core processor for optimal compute density with general application-as-a-service delivery or video encoding, plus up to 480GB of M.2 solid state storage.

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The m800 takes a completely different tack, using a Texas Instruments KeyStone II 66AK2H system on a chip. This combines four quad-core Cortex-A15 ARM processors with eight C66x DSP cores apiece, so a fully stocked Chassis can provide a grand total of 720 ARM cores and 1,440 DSP cores, offering huge potential for massively parallel digital signal processing.

The wide range of hardware configurations available with HP Moonshot shows clearly how it differs from a virtualised approach.

There are cartridges to put as many individual servers in the smallest space, with the least power consumption and cabling.

Or there are servers to support the most remote desktop environments, or the most DSPs, or the best Web application or caching performance.

Or, indeed, any combination of these that your company requires. In a virtualisation environment, all the underlying hardware will be the same, and not optimised for any of these specific applications.

HP's Moonshot strategy seems to be completely at odds with the trend towards virtualisation that has been so significant over the last few years. But many big players, notably Facebook and Google, are also bucking the trend and turning towards low-cost compute nodes tailored specifically for their needs.

Whilst companies of this scale can afford to design exactly what they want, and write their own management system as well, HP's Moonshot puts a similar approach in the hands of much smaller companies, in a highly flexible, fully modular format.