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June 12, 2014

HP will bet the company on a combination of memristors and silicon photonics

Hewlett-Packard has kicked off an ambitious project that aims at nothing less than reinventing the basic architecture of computers. It looks like servers are its initial target, but HP is also working on an Android version that it says could lead to smartphones with 100TB of storage.

HP said Wednesday it was working on a new computer architecture, dubbed The Machine, based on memristors and silicon photonics.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports up to 75% of HP’s once fairly illustrious R&D division — HP Labs – are working on The Machine.

In the words of HP Labs, The Machine will be a complete replacement for current computer system architectures. There will be a new operating system, a new type of memory (memristors), and super-fast buses/peripheral interconnects (photonics). Speaking to Bloomberg, HP says it will commercialize The Machine within a few years, “or fall on its face trying.”



The Machine isn’t on HP’s official roadmap. Fink says it could arrive as early as 2017 or take until the end of the decade. Any delivery date has to be taken with some skepticism given that HP has been hyping the memristor technology for years and failed to meet earlier self-imposed deadlines. “Memristors have been vaporware for a long time,” says David Kanter, a chip analyst and editor of the semiconductor publication Real World Tech.

“Memristors will be fast, dense and cheap enough to play both the ‘soon’ and ‘later’ roles at once, and thereby speed up throughput by eliminating most of the to and fro,” it said.

How dense? “We want you to be able to store your entire life; think of 100 terabytes on your smartphone,” Fink said. That’s more than a thousand times the storage an iPhone 5S has today.

HP is also designing new, application-specific processors for its architecture. It envisions pools of processors and memory chips interconnected with photonic cables, which Fink said will carry data at up to 6TB per second.

Managing the new architecture will require new operating systems. HP is building a Machine OS from scratch, but it’s also developing a version based on Linux and another with Google’s mobile OS.

He didn’t say more about the mobile plans and HP’s near-term focus is likely to be servers. But Paul Teich, senior analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said memristors could potentially replace DRAM and flash in smartphones, reducing their cost and improving performance and battery life.

More than that, with a single memory type, smartphones and tablets could access data in the cloud as easily as if it were on the device itself.

“After The Machine architecture and OS are in place, at some point in the future, the theory is that when you connect a memristor based Android device to a network with high enough bandwidth, it will become a node in a cloud with immediate access to the rest of that cloud,” Teich said. “It’s a different model of looking at device capabilities. Nothing will need to be ‘downloaded’ unless you plan to be disconnected from the larger network.”

“There is a lot of work for HP to marshal for the next few years to make this happen,” he added.

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