HPE Spaceborne Computer Testing Enterprise-Grade Servers in Space

Friday Aug 11th 2017 by Sean Michael Kerner
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Hewlett Packard Enterprise is sending a Linux-powered Supercomputer into space on a SpaceX rocket.

A new experiment from HPE called the Spaceborne computer is set to launch on a SpaceX rocket that will be headed to the International Space Station (ISS) on Monday, August 14, and it could revolutionize the way servers work in space.

Typically, computer servers that travel on NASA spacecraft go through years of hardening in order to survive the conditions in space. That process International Space Stationhowever also tends to mean the servers that go into space are not the latest and greatest systems commercially available.

The HPE Spaceborne computer server is a "Commercial Off The Shelf" (COTS) Apollo server that is intended to be functionally equivalent to the servers HPE sells to enterprises.

"We're launching a COTS system to which nothing has been changed to the hardware," Dr. Mark Fernandez, lead payload specialist for the HPE Spaceborne experiment, told ServerWatch. The entire purpose of the experiment is to see if we can harden the system from the harsh environment of space, using software only."

Hewlett Packard has worked with NASA over many decades, and there are already HPE systems on ISS, though all of them were purpose-built and ruggedized for space.

The HPE server going to the ISS is what Fernandez called a general purpose x86-based system that uses an Intel Broadwell class CPU and a 56-Gig interconnect. Rather than using Ethernet for connectivity, Fernandez said optical Fibre Channel cables are being used.

"Hardware-wise, we have avoided using copper since it can be influenced by radiation, so we've gone with optical," Fernandez said.

From a storage perspective, there are no spinning disks, only Solid State Drives (SSDs), also to help limit the risks of space radiation and micro-gravity.

In a typical data center, there are standard UPS power supplies that deliver power to servers, but that's not quite how NASA works. Fernandez said there are no UPS systems being shipping to the space station with the HPE server.

"We are plugging directly into NASA-provided power inverters," Fernandez explained. "The inverters take free electricity from the ISS' solar cells at 48 volts DC and convert to the 110 volts AC that we need."

"So we have 'free' electricity for the server," he added.

From a cooling perspective, the HPE server has an internal water-cooled radiator that also benefits from the space station's existing water conduits.

"We're plugging into the standard NASA-chilled water loop," Fernandez said. "That chilled water loop through a series of heat exchangers and pumps dissipates the heat for free into outer space."

The Spaceborne computer experiment will run for a full year to see what works and what doesn't. Fernandez stated HPE has a series of benchmarks that will be used to measure the performance and reliability of the server system over that period of time.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at ServerWatch and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

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