Hewlett-Packard unveils The Machine, the computer of the future

A portion of an IBM nanophotonic chip. In blue the optical waveguides transmitting high-speed optical signals and in yellow the copper wires carrying high-speed electrical signals (Image courtesy International Business Machines Corporation. All rights reserved)
A portion of an IBM nanophotonic chip. In blue the optical waveguides transmitting high-speed optical signals and in yellow the copper wires carrying high-speed electrical signals (Image courtesy International Business Machines Corporation. All rights reserved)

In Las Vegas, Hewlett-Packard’s CEO Meg Whitman, together with the company’s CTO Martin Fink, unveiled a new computer architecture that aims to revolutionize the sector. The Machine, as at the moment is called the new HP computer, uses hardware of type very different from the current such as photonics instead of copper and memristors instead of the current RAM and storage memories.

HP started working at The Machine two years ago, when Martin Fink has become CTO of the company and one of its tasks is the direction of HP Labs, the HP section devoted to the research and development of new technologies. He examined the research carried out and realized that it was time to put them together to create a new kind of computer.

The Machine uses a cluster of specialized processors instead of a single CPU. It’s a choice that goes against what happened in the last decades because over time more and more functions got integrated into a single processor, from the math coprocessor to the latest APUs which also integrate the graphics chip.

The various processors can communicate through photonics, which uses light pulses instead of electrical ones for communications. It’s a type of technology IBM has been developing for several years as well, recently trying to produce nanophotonic chips adapting existing production technologies.

The memory of The Machine is composed memristors, a type of memory that is non-volatile but as fast as RAM. The slowness of hard drives, and also the new SSDs, compared to RAM has always been a problem, memristors could finally solve this problem. In the new computer there could be only one type of memory of this new type.

These new technologies could provide computing power much greater than current computers. A further advantage is the fact that they require much less power than processors and memories used today. A data center of the future could be made from a single computer very small compared to today’s mainframes and supercomputers.

The Machine will need a suitable operating system. HP wants to start from Linux to adapt it to the new hardware. Martin Fink’s projects go further and Meg Whitman gave him a lot of HP Labs resources. Fink’s idea is to extend the use of those new technologiesi to all types of computers and this means that sooner or later they’ll produce mobile devices that implement them. For this reason Fink said that HP is already planning a version of Android that runs on new hardware.

When it comes to such new technologies, the main question concerns the implementation schedule in commercial systems. According to HP the first systems will be marketed in 2018. If the company succeeds in developing these technologies, in the next decade we could have PCs and mobile devices vastly more powerful and fast than the current ones.

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