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HP's Project Moonshot is providing the firm with a sounding board to seem like it is a company on the cutting edge of technology once again, but strip away the considerable marketing effort and the product seems to be little more than a blade server with the ability to use chips from multiple vendors.

Despite HP's well publicised woes in recent years, the firm still remains the market share leader when it comes to servers. To HP's credit it actually saw the impending demand for low-power 'micro servers' early enough that it wouldn't be caught flat footed and started its Moonshot program, and could well use its considerable reputation and market presence to win a significant chunk of this growing market.

HP managed to surprise many when its first generation of Moonshot server, named Redstone, used Calxeda's EnergyCore ARM chips rather than its favoured Intel Xeon parts. So it wasn't all that shocking that many industry watchers believed that the firm's second generation Moonshot servers would continue to push ARM chips, after all the ARM hardware and software ecosystem has progressed considerably in the past 18 months.

Instead HP's decision to launch with Intel's Centerton Atom chip, a chip that was announced a year ago, represented a smack in the face to rival chip vendors that were expecting a lot more support from HP. I've been told in no uncertain terms by more than one of HP's partners that they were unhappy with the way they were treated at the launch and expected far more exposure than HP gave them.

Blade servers reborn

Partner relations aside, it is difficult to see how HP's Project Moonshot is really that different from blade servers that arrived on the scene a decade ago. Certainly HP has packaged its Moonshot chassis slightly differently and the ability to mix silicon from different vendors is new, but customers are still effectively buying into a single vendor chassis.

Paul Santeler, vice president and general manager of HP's Hyperscale Business told me that the interconnect will last for multiple generations of Moonshot blades, or as HP calls them cartridges. However Santeler wouldn't say the specifications of the interconnect, only stating that those companies developing Moonshot blades are privvy to such information under strict embargo.

Santeler's comments suggest that HP's claims of Moonshot being an open development 'platform' for firms to produce products that plug into one of its chassis is a little misguiding at best. It is true that the firm is only doing what its rivals have done before in the blade server market, using its chassis to effectively lock-in customers, but that doesn't mean it is a good thing for customers.

Aside from computation, which is clearly what HP is using to push its Moonshot servers away from existing products on the market, there seems to be a worrying lack of information on storage.

HP had a fully loaded Moonshot chassis on show and what surprised me is the firm's decision to mount 2.5-inch SAS hard drives directly on the chassis. According to the firm, network attached storage would simply not meet the performance needs of its customers.

While HP's belief that directly attaching storage provides better performance is certainly one that holds up to scrutiny, given Santeler told me that the interconnect was designed for inter-blade communication loading a hard drive directly onto the cartridge seems like a myopic decision. Of course there is nothing stopping Moonshot users simply using NFS or CIFS via Ethernet to attach storage but given that HP went to consider trouble to design the interconnect, one would think it could also hang storage nodes off it.

Beyond the launch

HP said it would be introducing Moonshot blades with Intel's latest Avoton Atom chips in the second half of the year, which I've been told by people familiar with the matter will be September 2013, unless there are delays on Intel's side. Also I have been told that other chip vendors will have their respective boards ready in September, meaning HP's Moonshot server is really just a single vendor blade chassis until then.

According to HP, its decision to launch with Intel's Centerton chips was simply due to availability. The firm also said that blades based on Intel's Avoton Atom chips will cost more than those using Centerton chips, a statement that one Intel insider said was not something that HP usually makes before a product launch.

HP's Moonshot servers do offer slightly more choice and considerably higher CPU density than previous generation blade servers, however it is important to realise that underneath all the micro server hype and marketing, HP's Moonshot is still effectively a single-vendor chassis product. And unlike a decade ago, large firms are now learning that it is profitable to 'roll their own' servers rather than relying on firms such as HP to do the innovation at a schedule that meets their requirements.
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