Most of you who are in the data center business certainly know about HPE and their famous ProLiant server brand. But do you know HPE Cloudline series? Personally I didn’t and honestly passing around a stand showing a 4U device with a stand name in the lines of « Service Providers – HPE Cloudline series » or similar isn’t something that is terribly exciting. However I owe to my friend Marc Farley for letting me know about this little marvel at the HPE Discover conference in London.
HPE – Hidden Products Everywhere
The Cloudline series is a very specific product and it’s no surprise if you haven’t heard about it. First of all, for obscure reasons this hardware platform is marketed towards Managed Service Providers (MSPs) and only sold (so far) in the United States of America.
The MSPs have very specific requirements to run basic hardware without any HPE intellectual property, yet expect the same quality and robustness that they are accustomed to get from HPE. This means that HPE is giving you only hardware support, a BIOS and an IPMI interface. All of the additional stuff around has been stripped off (no iLO for example), and apparently all components are supposed to comply with Open Standards. Not sure to which extent this touches towards OCP (Open Compute Program) architectures, though.
A panacea for object storage
The Cloudline CL5200 G3 Server comes in a 4U form factor, with single-node or dual-node configurations, sporting Intel single or dual Xeon E5-2600 v3 and v4 series. Dual-node configs are oriented towards big data and Hadoop processing and can take up to 40x LFF drives, while single-node configs aim at object storage use cases. In this case, up to 80x LFF drive bays are available, the largest LFF 10TB SATA drives being also supported. From a RAM standpoint, up to 512 GB RAM can be installed per node. Two SFF slots are available on each node for boot purposes. More information can be found on the tech specs.
These very dense storage-oriented systems make the perfect foundation for software-defined storage systems oriented towards capacity such as object storage, with solutions such as Scality, Ceph or Hedvig to name a few. In fact, pretty much any software-defined storage solution that primarily targets capacity.
Performance is an other matter however. The question remains whether SSD drives can be installed in the LFF bays for caching purposes (it seems that no), or whether there is a possibility to use PCIe flash cards, which makes sense for most object storage solutions. Scality, for example, uses a flash tier to accelerate metadata handling. The tech specs indicate a total of 3 PCIe 3.0 slots, two being low profile and one being an OCP mezzanine for networking. Of the two low profile, one seems dedicated to an HBA/RAID controller and the second one is optional. I’m not 100% sure whether using the two onboard SFF slots for SSD would be sufficient, since these also need to host the OS.
Why is HP reluctant to market this?
It seems that the HPE organisation is not yet confident enough to open up the Cloudline CL5200 to the European market and also to non-MSP use cases because of a perceived « complexity » of the product. At a time when there is a massive push from HPE marketing to explain that they do « simple » things – even if this is probably a wrong track (see post from Marc Farley) this is quite contradictory with the corporate message. To HPE, the fact that this hardware is « purpose-built » for MSPs, without any IP, branding (you’ll note the whitebox aspect, without the usual ProLiant bezel) and without the side dishes found in the ProLiant series makes this a difficult product to position anywhere else. If you wonder what I mean by side dishes: think of the iLO interface, special drivers, server tools, smart update etc.
Another specific « feature » of the Cloudline series seems to be a matter of supply chain. Because these devices are not general purpose but aimed at a niche market, HPE says that they do not mass-produce them, which is the reason why need to know quantities ordered well in advance – apparently so they can reserve time on the manufacturing lines and have the hardware delivered on time.
Finally, it also seems that there is either a lack of awareness -or willingness- from the sales organisation to support this product. Reasons might be marketing message, customer targeting or even simply the prosaic fact that the Cloudline series is very likely to be damned cheap and thus margins are expected to be lower than mainstream commodity x86 servers (looking at you, ProLiant). I was wondering as to whether this would pose a threat to potential business with Scality but then remembered that it is a software-only solution, and also that HPE advertises Cloudline as a great bedrock for running Scality and the likes. That is, if you know that Cloudline exists at all.
Personally I don’t think that it’s a matter of simple vs complicated. The Cloudline series just needs to be marketed to the proper target group, a group that reaches far beyond the limits of MSPs in the USA and encompasses pretty much anyone interested into secondary storage or object storage, which dramatically increases the reach of this product. Object storage (and secondary storage) fully have their place in the enterprise world and even with SMBs, it’s not a matter of customer segment but a matter of data storage requirements. It’s a pity to see HPE restrict this product line in such an unfair way (even if some of the issues make sense such as the supply chain logistics). This is potential business that is being lost to competitors.
In my opinion this product makes a lot of sense in HPE’s predominantly hardware-based portfolio: it provides them with a solid hardware platform foundation to be offered for object storage and secondary storage projects. Now piggying back into my post about Scality, there are some good synergies here at play that HPE should leverage and emphasize more. I don’t see why they do not certify the platform for Scality, since HPE has not only a partnership with them but have also invested money in Scality. Wouldn’t that be a winner-winner situation?
I was invited by HPE to participate in their HPE Discover Blogger program. HPE has paid travel, accomodation and food for me. I am blogging out of my own will, without any obligation, and without any request from HPE. This article is independently written and represents only my personal opinions.