Hewlett Packard has recently unveiled a project, dubbed somewhat ominously “The Machine,” which if it pans out, could replace an entire data center’s worth of equipment with a single cabinet the size of a household refrigerator and connect 100 terabytes of memory to your smartphone. While we’re no strangers to hyperbolic claims being put out by tech companies, HP appears to truly believe that it is capable of bringing this fantasy to fruition, and had reportedly devoted 75% of HP Labs’ personnel to this project.
HP has been working on The Machine for two years now, and to call the project ambitious is the ultimate in understatement. Computer and software design has long been based upon a slow disk / fast memory paradigm. A computer’s central processor issues orders to copy the program and the data set that is to be manipulated from your data storage device to it’s local high-speed memory, or DRAM, which is located near the processor.
The problem with this architecture has become increasingly apparent as programs become more complex and sophisticated. The volume of data continues to increase exponentially while experts warn of the end of “Moore’s Law,” that computer processors would double in power every 18 to 24 months. As current-technology computer hardware bumps up against limits imposed by physics, there is a race to develop new technologies that are fundamentally different from the architecture that governs today’s computing frameworks.
HP’s gambit is based around the concept of the memristor, an atomic-scale transistor that can store information, “remembering” its state even after electrical current has been removed. The Machine’s prodigious memristor memory banks are planned to be placed on The Machine’s motherboards in close proximity to its processors, providing more or less instantaneous access to any and all data. The components would then be linked via silicon photonics, rather than copper, increasing throughput and lessening power consumption or heat dissipation requirements inherent in metallic conductors due to electrical resistance.
Of course, this paradigm shift in the very nature of what a computer is as a machine will also requires a completely new operating system, for which HP is developing an open-source Machine OS, to take advantage of The Machine’s always-available vast memory store. HP says that this system will be able to deal with massive data sets, ingest, store and manipulate them with orders of magnitude less energy consumed.
HP CEO Meg Whitman envisions: “a dashboard capable of displaying every aspect of the your [corporate] enterprise operations in real time,” or being able to have, “a doctor compare your symptoms and genomics with every other patient in the world instantly without language barriers and privacy breaches.” HP says that these technologies will be on market by the close of this decade, and they do appear to be doing all they can to be the ones who bring them to fruition.