Hewlett-Packard's efforts to usher in an entirely new computer architecture, one potentially much faster and simpler, may bear fruit by the end of 2016, when the company's lab expects to have the first prototype machine based on its design.
Should HP's Machine architecture prove successful, everyone in the IT business, from computer scientists to system administrators, may have to rethink their jobs, judging by a talk HP Labs Director Martin Fink gave at the Software Freedom Law Center's 10th anniversary conference Friday in New York.
HP first unveiled its plans for the Machine at its Discover user conference in June, anticipating that it could offer commercially available computers based on the design within 10 years. Fink said that the first prototype machine could be operating by 2016, giving the company a few extra years to work out bugs.
The Machine rethinks the Von Neumann computer architecture that has been dominant since the birth of computing, in which a computer has a processor, working memory and storage. In order to run a program, the processor loads the instructions and data from the storage into memory to perform the operations, then copies the results back to disk for permanent storage, if necessary.
Because the fabrication techniques for producing today's working memory -- RAM -- are reaching their limits, the industry will have to move to another form of memory. There are a number of experimental designs for next-generation memory being developed and HP is working on its own version, called memristor, which the Machine is based on.
All of the new memory designs share the common characteristic of being persistent, so if they lose power, they can retain their contents, unlike today's RAM. In effect, they can take the place of traditional storage mechanisms, such as hard drives or solid-state disks. This means computers can operate directly on the data itself, on the memristors in HP's case, instead of shuttling the data between the working memory and storage.
Such a seemingly simple change in the architecture will nonetheless have a series of radical "cascading" effects on how computation is done, Fink explained.
For starters, the approach will means computers, in theory, could be much more powerful than they are today.
HP has stated that a Machine-like computer could offer six times the performance requiring 80 times less power. Fink expects that the first prototype that HP is working on will have 150 compute nodes with 157 petabytes of addressable memory.
Such a machine would require an entirely new operating system, Fink said. Most of the work an OS involves copying data back and forth between memory and disk. The Machine eliminates the notion of data reads or writes.
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