Don’t panic. This isn’t about Terminators taking over the world. But it is about a radical new form of computer architecture that has the potential to be a major game player in how we all access our digital content: HP’s (Hewlett-Packard’s) forthcoming new hardware platform, the Machine. And HP’s HP Labs Director, Martin Fink, has just announced that the first prototype could be operating by 2016.
So why the hullaballoo? Well here are a few of the facts that might explain why: data centres are huge, energy-guzzling behemoths, right? Not after the Machine: it’s going to shrink them to about the size of a fridge (a fridge that sips a comparatively tiny amount of energy, by the way). It will also completely rethink the traditional model of computer architecture (named after its inventor, John von Neumann).
In computers using the von Neumann architecture, a processor has to transfer data and instructions on how to run any given program from storage to the device’s working memory. That’s a lot of shuttling. And it’s about to change.
There’s a growing problem with the RAM fabrication techniques used for creating working memory: frankly, they’re creaking under the strain of today’s vast data transfers. So HP is putting RAM out to pasture and opting for its own version of a next-generation memory technology called the “memristor”. This is seriously new – much faster and considerably more efficient than flash memory, it never loses data, even when your device loses power or runs out of battery juice and slips into a coma.
RAM just can’t compete with that. And memristor can replace solid-state discs and hard drives, because there’s no need to shuttle data between storage and working memory. That’s going to speed things up a lot (up to six times the speed of current computers, according to HP). Computers using the Machine will have a new operating system that also speeds things up by replacing the copper wires currently used in Ethernet cables with ultra-fast light technology called “photonics.”
Given that HP said in June, when it first announced the Machine, that it would take a decade to develop, the 2016 schedule suggests that work on the project has been positively galloping at HP Labs.