HPE Moonshot Review

We can now offer our customers a real Windows 7 or 8/8.1 cloud-based desktop, but some ‘sizing’ will still be needed to see how many users will be able to run a certain workload on a single blade.

During the last year or so I have had my eye on the HP Moonshot platform. I followed what other community members had to say about it, how HP marketed the product and of course the announced partnership between HP and Citrix, introducing the Workspace Pod series at Summit not that long ago. I was rather skeptic, and I guess I still am. On the other hand, I also acknowledge that times are changing and that, if the use case fits, HP Moonshot might be a valuable solution, it just depends.

I actually wrote this article about three weeks ago and hadn’t gotten around to review and/or post it since, with no specific reason really, other than being busy working on all kinds of other projects, professionally as well as personally. I wasn’t expecting any announcements on the Moonshot platform, since it has been (very) quite for some time now, so I wasn’t in any hurry. And while nothing new came from HP, or Citrix for that matter (WorkspacePod), there was this podcast not too long ago that got the whole VDI / GPU discussion going again, including Moonshot. To be clear, this is not a reaction to that, at all, it’s just something that recently came on my path, which got me thinking.

Hands-on experience…

I know that a lot of you out there feel that you (at least) have to have some kind of hands-on experience to be able to fully appreciate and ‘judge’ a product. I agree, that’s by far the best approach. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion on something you have never build or worked with before. You just need to make sure to base your thoughts on facts rather than assumptions. In fact I think, no let me rephrase, I know, that a lot of blogposts are based on just that, plain facts I mean. And that’s fine. Unless you are overly negative and burn a product or solution down to the ground without having done proper research, you might want to re-evaluate your opinion. 

Hands-on can be hard

I mean, judging a book by its cover, what does that mean? Really? If you have gone through the manuals, the support docs and forums, have seen the product in action, have read multiple blog posts of others who were in the lucky circumstances to have used the product, etc… Than you could argue that ‘the book’ has been read, at least that’s how I feel. Will you have all the details? No. Is that relevant? It might be, it all depends on what you have to say. Don’t get me wrong though, I’d still prefer hands-on any day. But I also feel that there are a lot of examples where hands-on experience with a certain product is hard to get, and Moonshot is probably a good example, but that shouldn’t stop us from writing about it. Do I have any personal hands-on experience with HP Moonshot you ask? No I have not. Anyway, back on topic. 

The unpublished

A while back I wrote an extensive blogpost in where I compared HP Moonshot (VDI only), with some of the better-known hyper converged solutions out there. Basically virtual vs. physical. In the end I concluded, based on several examples, that virtual, for me personally, came out on top. And if you are wondering to which specific blogpost I am referring, I never published it. After writing it I felt it was to early and that I probably should wait it out just a while longer before jumping to any premature conclusions. And I’m glad that I did. While I still feel that in most cases virtual comes before physical (read HP Moonshot, VDI and XenApp), in some cases HP Moonshot does the trick, and does it well! 

A few other things first

Before I jump to my ‘use case’ example, I’d like to first share a few thoughts on Moonshot. And no, it’s not my intention to burn it to the ground.

First of all, stating that with Moonshot you get rid of the Hypervisor complexity doesn’t cut it for me. Sure, you won’t need a hypervisor for your XenApp / XenDesktop workloads, saving you the trouble of sizing your virtual platform accordingly. This saves some time, potential frustration and money on licensing. However, this is something we have been doing for the last five to ten years or so, so we should be quite good at this. And while some experience and common-sense are important, there are some great sizing tools out there to assist us.

And even with Moonshot, take the HSD (XenApp) orientated 710 cartridge for example, some ‘sizing’ will still be needed to see how many users will be able to run a certain workload on a single blade while still offering an acceptable UX. Numbers based on standard workloads only tell you so much.

Secondly, Moonshot is all-physical, so you will still need some sort of a base platform in place running all of your infrastructural services like Active Directory, DNS, DHCP etc. but also your StoreFront servers, Delivery Controllers, Database server(s) and so on. I think it’s safe to say that most companies today will have these roles virtualized.

And thirdly, and building on top of the previous one(s), hypervisors are a commodity nowadays and have been for some time, while they can be complex in some cases they have been around for years and years and knowledge is wide spread. For most of us (and here I mean the sys admins, consultants etc.) managing a hypervisor is a daily task and business as usual.

Moonshot however has not been around that long, and I have still to find the first consultant or article telling me they have set up and configured Moonshot without any issues or the need for HP support. If you look at some of the steps involved, the physical aspect, cabling, PXE, firmware (for the chassis and cartridges), networking, the base image, PVS, WDS (at least for the first node in the chassis), HP chassis management etc. some skills are needed, still manageable of course, but I wouldn’t call it straightforward. 

What else?

I’m sure (in fact I know) things have improved (and will improve further, some nice wizards have been introduced for example, to simplify process) from an initial setup perspective, including overall (ongoing) maintenance, which I guess, comes close to managing a ‘normal’ virtual XenApp / XenDesktop Site except for a firmware update here and there. But easier, or less complex than a hypervisor (which you probably still use anyway)? I have to say no. Especially when hyper convergence comes into play, the initial setup and overall management process will be simplified even further.

Though it might get slightly more complex when GPU’s are involved (but still very doable) which is one of the main pros when it comes to Moonshot. As mentioned earlier, you also won’t have to size (over-committing resources and what not) your platform to run a certain amount of VM’s, which is often the ‘hard’ part. Moonshot comes with pre-configured cartridges and scales linearly with regards to performance, storage etc. although most hyper converged appliances will offer a similar guarantee once properly sized per appliance.

It is also (often) argued that Moonshot can, or will, safe you money when it comes to power consumption, but when compared to some of the better know hyper-converged appliances I doubt if there is much difference (I only did a quick check) if at all.

Virtual = more flexible?

I also feel that a virtual environment offers more flexibility. You need a few more VM’s? Sure, I’ll spin those babies right up, go and have some coffee. With Moonshot however, you are limited to the amount of cartridges you have in your chassis. If you are out of cartridges you will have to buy a few new ones. And in most cases you probably won’t have your chassis fully loaded with cartridges if you only need 15 or 20 to start with.

In fact, they sell per 15 at a time if I’m not mistaken, although I’m sure you will be able to cut some kind of a deal with HP on that. What if your chassis (it can hold up to 45 cartridges in total) is full? You will have to buy a new one, and those aren’t cheap I can tell you, and this goes for the cartridges as well, especially when you have to purchase 10 or 15 at a time. And I know that with virtual you can run out of compute as well, but it just isn’t the same.

Due note that there is a BIG (list) price difference between Europe and the United States. My point is it’s less flexible, with Moonshot up front scaling becomes very important. The cartridges are one purpose only, you can’t use any of the ‘left over’ or ‘spare’ compute that isn’t used for XenApp or desktops in any other way as we can with virtual. Potentially making your XenApp servers or desktops more expensive than they need to be. For me these are some of its main drawbacks combined with some of the (list) prices I have seen. Why not spend the same (or a bit more perhaps) amount on virtual?

Again, Moonshot cartridges come pre-configured hardware wise (some more details on this in one of the next sections below), which has its advantages, but what if you need to scale beyond that? It has cons as well. I wouldn’t say that the ‘use case’ is extremely specific, but it’s something to be aware of nonetheless.

What do I like?

Ok, enough ‘negative’ talk, although it’s not meant that way. What are some of the (main) advantages that Moonshot has to offer? Well, predictability and an excellent user experience (isolated workloads and no Hypervisor overhead) to name two (or three). If you look at VDI for example (although in the case of Moonshot it is actually referred to as HDI, Hosted Desktop Infrastructure, since it’s all physical, no hypervisor involved), each user will get a physical CPU/GPU (AMD Opteron™ X2150 APU, 1.5GHz, (4) x86 cores, and Integrated GPU with AMD Radeon HD 8000 Series Graphics) 8 GB of memory (DDR3 PC3-12800 SDRAM (1600 MHz) and flash like storage (32 or 64 GB of integrated Solid State Storage (iSSD) per server) best thing is, it’s on a one to one basis. Now if that doesn’t get things moving I don’t know what will.

The same applies to the XenApp cartridges; each (710) cartridge functions as a XenApp server (one cartridge equals one node) and also has a physical CPU/GPU (Intel® E3-1284Lv3, 1.8GHz (3.2Ghz Turbo), (1) x86 cores, and integrated graphics with Intel® Iris™ Pro Graphics P5200), 32 GB of memory (DDR3 PC3L-12800 (1600 MHz) SODIMM Low Voltage) and flash storage (120 GB or 480 GB of M.2 solid state storage per cartridge)

If you want more exact details on the 700 and 710 cartridges, the Moonshot chassis etc. I suggest having a look here. Due note that the 710 cartridges can also be used to host other application delivery and/or video transcoding workloads, and of course Server VDI is optional as well.

With HDI one (700) cartridge holds 4 nodes, each node being a single separate Hosted Desktop and thus consists out of the specs mentioned above. So with 45 cartridges in a full chassis you are able to have a total 45 x 4 = 180 Hosted Desktops. Or 45 XenApp cartridges, here the user workload (types of applications) will determine the total amount of users per XenApp server (we are currently testing with 30 on average, including HD graphics).

With each user having its own physical CPU/GPU, enough memory etc. (when dealing with HDI) the overall user experience will be top notch, as to be expected. And because it scales linearly it’s very predictable, you also won’t have to deal with boot storms for example, which is another big plus.

And again, you won’t have to scale / guess / test how many VM’s your virtual environment can handle, it’s 45 XenApp servers (here you still have to scale the number of users per server depending on workload) or 45 times 4 regarding one to one Desktops (HDI).

As a side-note, with virtual, and there are many examples out there, we can also provide our users with a more than average overall user experience. You might not end up with the exact same compute configuration per VM or the exact same numbers from a performance perspective (this would probably make it too expensive) but in many, or most, cases that isn’t needed anyway, especially with all the hyper-convergence platforms available today, which (because of their architecture) are performance boosters on their own. And as for GPU’s, whether it’s HSD or VDI, they are more than a nice to have for sure, but mandatory? I think not.

Citrix Service Provider

If we take it one step further and look at it from a service provider perspective we can now offer our customers a real Windows 7 or 8 / 8.1 cloud based desktop (though the 700 cartridges are only officially certified for Windows 7 today) without to much hassle. No sizing is required (which can also be a limitation if you need ‘heavier’ servers / desktops) and performance is guaranteed, sort of. When using XenApp (Moonshot supports Windows Server 2008 as well as 2012) customers can also bring in their own licenses for Office 365 for example, another bonus. There are other ways in achieving similar results, but this certainly sounds appealing.

Multi tenancy

Offering XenApp hosted shared desktops from a cloud perspective isn’t new, it has been done for years, and very successfully I might add. Offering a Windows Desktop OS however, isn’t that common since you will need to use separate dedicated hardware per customer / tenant. Microsoft licensing doesn’t allow a desktop OS to be offered from a multi tenant / shared hardware platform.

When we use Moonshot for this, all you have to do is dedicate a full cartridge to a customer / tenant. So even if a customer (only) needs two HDI desktops for example, you will have to dedicate a whole cartridge (which consists out of four nodes) to that tenant exclusively. Microsoft has verified this, but… you will have to get an official (written) statement from Microsoft stating that they allow you to offer this configuration to your customers. Of course this still isn’t perfect, but gives us a bit more to play with.

Enter lease…

Yes, I still prefer virtual, but what if…

We could lease a HP Moonshot cartridge, a chassis (or multiple), all the cabling and other components needed to build a full HP Moonshot architecture next to our existing virtual or physical platform, for a standard (low) monthly fee? I know HP has several financial offerings on their website, which I didn’t bother to have a look at (though I should have).

But it was only a few weeks ago that I found out (while talking to a few of our own engineers closely working with HP on a Moonshot PoC) about the various options we (as a company) have when it comes to leasing HP equipment. I’m sure these offering will differ per company and will depend on the contract and/or relationship you have with HP as a vendor, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Using this model, if I run the numbers again the amount per desktop (shared or dedicated) per user drops immensely, equal or cheaper then virtual even (and this includes several ‘spare’ cartridges as well). I won’t go into any specifics as I don’t know the official statement HP has in this, and again, it will probably be different depending on the company you work for, but I can tell you that it’s way more flexible with regards to the number of cartridges you need to lease compared to the numbers you need to buy. Also, you won’t have to worry about exact numbers. Is your chassis full? No problem, here are your next set of cartridges (and you won’t have to order 15 at once) including a fully armed and wired chassis!

HP engineers will mount the chassis and any cartridges that come with, take care of all cabling, network setup etc. and will help you configure everything so you will be up and running in no time (or so they tell us). Know that these services are also available when you would like to purchase Moonshot. Or, if you prefer, you can do all this yourself with HP as a back-up resource, so to speak.

All this, in our case anyway, comes with a four-hour service level agreement including onsite support, replacing parts etc. when needed. For now, although we haven’t got it all figured out yet, we are primarily focusing on the 710, XenApp, cartridges. Note that the lease agreement also includes upgrades to any new cartridges that may de developed over time, the same applies to the chassis.

Bottom line

If you, as a company, are able to get your hands on a HP Moonshot lease agreement, at a reasonable price of course, then this might be something to consider. Your users might or might not necessarily need (but will certainly benefit) all these physical resources, including GPU’s, Flash storage etc. (in the case of HDI) but if it comes at a price equal or cheaper then virtual, who cares? It goes without saying that this applies to your internal business users as well as any cloud customers you might have.

Of course there are still some things you need to consider. Virtual will still be more flexible when you need to scale beyond the physical limitations of a Moonshot XenApp or HSD node with regards to compute and storage, the overall maintenance efficiency with virtual will probably be a bit higher as well, you can use MCS and don’t have to worry about WDS combined with PVS and with virtual we can run all workloads, you won’t need a second (separate) platform, the initial setup and configuration will be a lot easier and ‘known’ to most etc.

Pick your poison.

Originally posted at https://www.basvankaam.com/

**Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.
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