A year ago at Hewlett-Packard's annual user conference, the company's CTO and director of HP Labs introduced a new server architecture being developed that he and other executives are calling the Machine.
The new architecture will include such technologies as silicon photonics, custom processors, its own operating system and—once the system launches in about five years—HP's advanced memristor technology. The system is being designed to handle the massive amounts of data that will be generated down the road due to cloud computing, big data analytics, the proliferation of mobile devices, the Internet of things (IoT) and other computing trends. HP executives believe the tsunami of data eventually will overwhelm current infrastructures and a new architecture is needed. Thus the Machine.
According to reports this week out of HP Discover 2015, HP officials are preparing to launch a single-rack prototype of the system next year, giving the industry a glimpse of what's to come when the first complete Machines roll out around the end of the decade.
At the show, Martin Fink, HP CTO and director of HP Labs, spoke about the prototype and gave attendees a look at some of its components, such as the silicon photonics that will be used. The prototype will hold 2,500 processor cores and a massive 320TB of main memory. By comparison, the largest of HP's high-end Superdome systems holds 12TB.
However, the prototype also will be armed with traditional DRAM memory chips and will run a version of Linux rather than a specially created operating system. According to the reports, HP is still developing the memristor technology that officials have said will be available in the finished systems five years from now. The DRAM in the prototype will act as a proxy for the memristors, enabling software vendors like SAP to begin to work with the Machine.
And the memristors are critical parts of HP's plans for the machines. Memristors are essentially chips that can operate like both storage and memory for the computer, creating a fast memory technology that also can keep data stored when power is turned off. In HP's vision, the Machine will offer massive pools of nonvolatile memory for storing data that will be linked by silicon photonics, and which will not only increase the amount of data that can stored in a single machine, but also speed up processing and reduce power consumption.
The idea of memristors has been around as theory for decades, but it wasn't until late in the last decade that researchers showed such chips could be built. However, building them isn't easy, and according to the new site Re/code, yields for HP in memristors—the number of usable chips developed during manufacturing—have at times hit 15 percent, a low percentage in the chip space.
However, Antonio Neri, HP's senior vice president and general manager of its Enterprise Group, told Re/code that while it isn't easy manufacturing the memristors, the yields are increasing and HP's "materials scientists have solved many of the problems."
Another hurdle will be the need to rewrite software to run on the new architecture, though HP officials have argued that doing so will be needed if organizations are going to be able to manage the coming onslaught of data. In many ways, HP is going back to the days when vendors like IBM and Sun Microsystems would not only build their own systems, but all the components and operating systems that went into them. Much of that has gone away as commodity technology—like Intel processors and Linux distributions—came onto the scene.
HP is making a significant bet on the Machine. It's the biggest project in HP Labs, and engineers and researchers across the company—from such areas as semiconductors and photonics to systems and software architecture—are pulling the pieces together. According to Re/code, the company is leveraging as much as 75 percent of its R&D efforts on its development. HP expects to spend as much as $500 million, according to the New York Times.
If all goes right, the result will be a system about the size of a refrigerator that will be able to do the work of an entire data center. However, it's a risk for HP, particularly as it prepares to split into two companies Nov. 1. One company, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, will sell enterprise IT systems and services, while HP Inc. will offer PCs and printers.