Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

HP Pins Big Hopes on Today’s Launch of Project Moonshot

When the definitive story looking back on the effort to turn around the flailing technology giant Hewlett-Packard is written, today may be seen as a turning point, perhaps for the good, perhaps not so good.

Today is the day HP will formally unveil a product upon which a lot of its hopes for transformation and a return to health have been placed. It’s called Project Moonshot, and HP has been talking about it for about 18 months.

Basically, it’s a server, a very small server that consumes very little energy. During a conversation earlier this year, Dave Donatelli, HP’s executive VP and head of its enterprise, showed me one. Smaller than a typical hardcover book, it consumes 89 percent less energy to operate, and takes up 94 percent less space than a typical server. And, when packed into a large rack with many more servers like it, the amount of computing power that can be harnessed in one relatively small place is pretty impressive.

It’s also highly customizable, in a nearly endless series of mix-and-match combinations: It supports Intel’s Atom line of small and light microprocessors, as well as new up-and-coming server chips based on designs from the British firm ARM. It can also support graphics processing units from companies like Nvidia, as well as standard hard drives or flash-memory based solid-state storage.

HP’s argument to the marketplace is that Moonshot is unique. In a world where companies maintain data centers either for their own operations or as a means of reselling cloud computing capacity, HP’s hope is that the appeal of lower operating costs over time — energy consumption is a big one — will appeal to customers looking to swap out older machines.

And by at least one simple metric, it is. HP’s rivals, including Dell, IBM and Oracle, have nothing quite like it. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t. It is increasingly popular — companies like Google and Facebook do a lot of this — for a company to assemble their own servers from off-the-shelf components. Indeed, chipmaker Intel will be discussing new reference designs — essentially a basic blueprint — for what it calls “micro servers,” based on new versions of its Atom processors, later this week.

The message of Moonshot is also larger. It’s a signal from CEO Meg Whitman that HP can still launch important, innovative products that are different from anything else on the market. That’s a key message, given the tremendous difficulty the company has found itself in over the last few years. Indeed, just last week, Chairman Ray Lane stepped down from that role, and two other directors resigned in response to a proxy campaign by shareholders unhappy with the botched 2011 acquisition of the British software firm Autonomy.

A successful product launch will help shift the HP narrative away from recurring boardroom and executive office dramas, toward the day-to-day business of being the world’s largest technology company. And that’s just as important as the product itself. The sight of HP experiencing a win in a key market segment will go a long way toward making it look as though the longed-for turnaround — one that seemed unthinkable only months ago — is really getting under way.

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