Can HP Moonshot deliver blue-sky energy management in datacentres?

New servers that have more in common with laptops than datacentre hardware are being developed to tackle the energy time bomb

New servers that have more in common with laptops than datacentre hardware are being developed to tackle the energy time bomb.

The winter price hike has put the cost of energy in the spotlight once again. Lord Rupert Redesdale, CEO of the Energy Managers Association and chairman of the Low Energy Company, believes energy will have a material effect on IT and business. 

“If energy prices double, low-cost hosting and cloud services are no longer economical,” he said.

Chip makers and server manufacturers are hoping to tackle the energy crisis, with emerging datacentre server architectures using low-powered Intel Atom and AMD Opteron chips in highly scale-out systems.

These are not general-purpose blades, but servers designed to run applications such as Hadoop, e-commerce websites, and workloads designed to run efficiently across large numbers of low-powered servers.

“Having software close to the hardware is where all the magic happens,” said Margaret Lewis, director of software planning for AMD's server division. 

AMD wants datacentres to "re-imagine the server", she said because there is an exponential demand for computer processing, network and data storage, so workloads have to do more tasks.

Moonshot servers

The HP Moonshot server family uses AMD Enterprise clusters based on an Opteron X series processor. This is an integrated graphics processing unit (GPU) and central processing unit (CPU) – the so-called APU – which uses a laptop processor to build very dense clusters, where server building blocks on a blade share common components. “A four-APU Moonshot card shares a common network connector, storage and virtualisation layer,” said Lewis.

The key point about this new style of datacentre computing is that the servers are application specific. For instance, HP’s Converged System 100 for Hosted Desktops is designed to move desktop computing into the datacentre. 

HP claims it is the industry’s first system architected to deliver a consistent, high-quality PC experience for remote and mobile knowledge workers. Engineered from the ground up, in partnership with AMD and Citrix, the system delivers dedicated PC-on-a-chip resources to support mobile workers who need the power of a full desktop. 

According to HP, its approach to building a hosted desktop means users avoid the performance compromises of running desktop virtualisation. It said the system supports business graphics and multimedia performance of a traditional desktop PC, offering graphics frames per second that are six times faster than other virtual desktop infrastructure systems.

Using the GPU

One of the big benefits of these laptop-like systems is that they offer an integrated GPU. This opens up the possibility of using the graphics chip for processing, rather like the Cuda libraries Nvidia provides to access its GPUs.

In August 2013, Nvidia, along with Google and IBM, formed the OpenPower alliance, which will provide advanced server, networking, storage and graphics technology for next-generation, hyperscale and cloud datacentres.

AMD’s Heterogeneous System Architecture enables C, C++ and Fortran developers to create applications that can take advantage of GPU-based computing.

Seismic data analysis in fracking is a signal processing application that could be ported to a GPU on a server chip to improve performance. Monte Carlo simulations and bioanalytics also make good candidates for GPU acceleration, according to Lewis.

ARM-powered server

Among the interesting developments coming out of HP’s Moonshot programme is its first ARM-powered server.

The server is a 32-bit system running Ubuntu Linux. It uses four ARM cores and eight integrated digital signal processors (DSPs) for telecommunications applications. 

HP sees the system very much as a product for telcos that would traditionally use proprietary hardware. The ARM chip is a 32-bit processor, and clearly is not going to be running the Windows Server operating system, but given that ARM powers mobile phones, it offers the potential of incredibly low power consumption. But there will clearly be a lag in adoption, until Linux software is migrated onto ARM.

It is too early to predict how well ARM servers will do in the market. HP is already selling Atom and Opteron servers, but these are very much application-specific hardware. 

Hadoop and web hosting, which require large numbers of low-cost servers, seem to be the logical choice, and HP appears to be selling these systems to cloud and web service providers initially. In time, such servers may enable the service providers to buffer rising energy costs and keep their cloud and web hosting services affordable.

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