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HP's Moonshot launch highlights Intel's power in the server market

Analysis Shows how much work ARM has to do to challenge Chipzilla
Tue Apr 09 2013, 17:26
HP Moonshot

STRUGGLING ENTERPRISE VENDOR HP showed ARM and its chip partners that Intel still rules the roost when it comes to server chips, even if they consume more power.

HP caused something of a storm by choosing to lead with an Intel Atom chip rather than continue championing ARM processors with its Moonshot server programme. While HP still maintains that its ARM partners bring unique, specialised chips to the party, the fact that Intel took top billing in a highly publicised launch will leave many industry members and industry watchers in no doubt that the firm still sees x86 as the breadwinner when it comes to servers.

Stripping away HP's high profile marketing around the Moonshot programme leaves what is effectively a blade server chassis that mounts blades - or in keeping with HP's marketing, cartridges - without front panel access. HP touts the ability for those blades to mount system on chip (SoC) processors from multiple vendors rather than traditional server processors such as AMD Opteron, Intel Xeon or something slightly more exotic like Sparc or even Itanium chips.

HP's Moonshot cartridges look very much like shrunken blade servers of years gone by, with the firm even deciding to mount a hard drive on the module. According to HP this allows each cartridge to be a separate server, which does have some advantages against cascading failures, but also is a step backwards in terms of manageability.

Given that HP and just about every other server and chip vendor talks about the so-called 'explosion of storage', a single hard disk or a solid state disk drive mounted on a server cartridge seems like a rather shortsighted decision should a workload require the processing power of multiple cartridges, requiring the customer to either copy data from one hard drive to another or route data through the backplane to get access to another cartridge's storage.

Surprisingly, HP's biggest innovation is one that it hasn't talked about publicly. HP's Moonshot servers have a new interconnect between the cartridges. The firm would not divulge figures such as inter-cartridge bandwidth, but said that it would only share technical details with partners that design cartridges for its servers.

HP's decision to go with Intel's Centerton Atom chips represents a major coup for Intel, even given its entrenched position in the server market. HP's first generation Moonshot servers exclusively ran Calxeda's Energycore chips and were clearly a niche product line, while the firm's second generation Moonshot servers are clearly meant for prime time.

ARM's problem is that if HP, which is still the biggest server vendor, decides to go with Intel in the low-energy server market when crunch time arrives, what else can it and its vendors do to take top billing when it clearly has an energy advantage over Intel? HP's Moonshot launch shows just how hard it will be for ARM to win over even a small chunk of the server market, even with the widespread talk of ARM based servers.

It should be noted that HP didn't completely ignore ARM vendors at its Moonshot launch, with AMD, Applied Micro, Calxeda and Texas Instruments all in participation alongside ARM, but looking at HP's Moonshot server webpage it is hard to find any mention of ARM.

For ARM the most concerning aspect of HP's Moonshot launch should come from the fact that the firm chose to launch Moonshot with Intel's Centerton Atom chip, a chip that was announced a year ago. Not only will Intel have its second generation Atom SoC codenamed Avoton out on the market within the next six months, HP said it will be offering Moonshot cartridges sporting Intel's new chip in the second half of 2013.

Intel's ability, at least at this stage, to ramp up Atom so quickly and keep big vendors such as HP on board, should be a major concern for ARM and its vendors. While ARM's architecture might be inherently low power, all of that doesn't matter if high volume server vendors such as HP decide to promote Intel over other options, and make no mistake, promotion matters with recent history providing ample examples.

In March 2003, AMD's Opteron chip was head and shoulders above Intel's Xeon, sporting 64-bit support and an integrated memory controller that blew away anything Intel had with its memory controller hubs, better known as Northbridge chipsets. Yet AMD, with superior performance for years, better features and even lower power consumption thanks to not relying on fully-buffered DIMMs, could barely make a dent in the server market because vendors barely paid lip service to the chip let alone put it into high volume server models.

Thankfully for ARM, today things are a bit different and unlike in 2003, there is more than one ARM vendor that has very capable SoCs. From HP's point of view, the Moonshot programme will test just how deep the firm's relationship with Intel is, because the ARM vendors will offer HP something Intel's one-size fits all Atom chip can't - higher profit margins through differentiated hardware. µ


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