Just a few days after my blog about Data Center trends mentioned “rethinking the rack,” HP announced its reinterpretation of the server with its new Moonshot series. While the name initially struck me as odd considering HP’s ongoing troubles, the product appears to be a refreshing take on the problem of cramming more processing power into less real estate, with lower power and cooling requirements.

Moore power

For years, data centers benefited from the largess of Moore’s law, with each upgrade demanding the latest enterprise-grade processors, and the explosion of multi-core chips and new fabrication technologies packing unfathomable levels of processing horsepower into each new generation of processors. However, powering and cooling these monsters has combined with the fact that many applications simply don’t need the raw computing muscle of the latest multi-core behemoth. Power consumption has moved from a trivial number on the spec sheet to a primary consideration when designing a data center. With Moonshot, HP has simply productized a notion that’s been circulating in some circles for a few years, that lower-power mobile processors are “good enough” for most enterprise computing tasks, and the ability to cram several of them into a small space outweighs any performance penalty.

Changing chassis

In some ways, the Moonshot chassis is more similar to current server chassis than something like the Open Compute Project. The OCP server eschews traditional niceties like a cover and bezel, and looks like a server with an open case. Moonshot looks rather traditional, but essentially puts an entire rack’s worth of servers in a single box. The first Moonshot chassis contains shared networking, power, cooling, and storage, and allows for 45 pluggable “servers” sporting one of several available chipsets. Essentially, HP has taken the blade server to the next level.

Will HP shoot the moon?

Conceptually, HP has made a logical move, further condensing the blade concept and allowing for a “rack in a box.” Employing processors with a mobile heritage allows for lower power and cooling requirements, and allows the end-user to configure a variety of ARM, Intel, and AMD processors in a single, standardized box, choosing the right tool for the job without requiring a different hardware platform. All of this sounds compelling, save for two chinks in the armor: going first and putting all your eggs in one basket.

While few components of enterprise servers are interchangeable among different vendors, the designs and maintenance procedures are relatively proven. With Moonshot, HP is offering a fairly dramatic departure from traditional server designs. If this new design is embraced, HP has the chance to define a new server architecture and reap the rewards of being the first to market. However, if Moonshot gets a lukewarm reception or is plagued by technical bugs, other heavy hitters in the server market can wait on the sidelines and release a superior product.

The other major risk to Moonshot is that it puts what amounts to an entire rack of servers into a single box, with shared networking, power, cooling, and storage. While high rack densities are nothing new, the risk of a single hardware component failure taking out 45 servers may be a point of concern for critical applications.

The market will ultimately decide whether Moonshot is the next big innovation in data center design or a niche proprietary player. In either case, it’s refreshing to see a major player fundamentally reconsidering server design, rather than just throwing out increasingly power- and cooling-hungry designs.

For more on the 21st century data center, see ZDNet’s special feature page, or download TechRepublic’s Executive Guide to the 21st Century Data Center.