Hewlett-Packard has kicked off an ambitious project that aims at nothing less than reinventing the basic architecture of computers. It looks like servers are its initial target, but HP is also working on an Android version that it says could lead to smartphones with 100TB of storage.
HP said Wednesday it was working on a new computer architecture, dubbed The Machine, based on a type of memory called memristors and a communications technology called silicon photonics, which uses light beams to move data around at high speeds.
It's still a research project in HP's labs, and its not certain when -- if ever -- The Machine will make it to market. But HP is throwing a lot of resources at the problem -- as many as three-quarters of its labs staff are working on it -- and its estimates for delivery range from three years to the end of the decade.
HP believes the current computing architecture - used in smartphones, PCs and just about every other type of computer you can think of -- can't keep pace with expanding compute and storage needs. So it embarked on a project about two years ago to rethink computing from the ground up, CTO Martin Fink said at an HP conference in Las Vegas.
A key goal for The Machine is to replace the different storage technologies in use today with a single "universal memory" pool made from memristors, he said. That's a new type of memory, still at the research stage, that uses ions instead of electrons to represent the 1s and 0s of computer code.
"Today, all our devices -- from phone to supercomputer -- constantly shuttle information between three layers of memory: what's needed this instant (SRAM), what will be needed very soon (DRAM) and what may be needed later (storage)," HP said on its website.
"Memristors will be fast, dense and cheap enough to play both the 'soon' and 'later' roles at once, and thereby speed up throughput by eliminating most of the to and fro," it said.
How dense? "We want you to be able to store your entire life; think of 100 terabytes on your smartphone," Fink said. That's more than a thousand times the storage an iPhone 5S has today.
HP is also designing new, application-specific processors for its architecture. It envisions pools of processors and memory chips interconnected with photonic cables, which Fink said will carry data at up to 6TB per second.
Managing the new architecture will require new operating systems. HP is building a Machine OS from scratch, but it's also developing a version based on Linux and another with Google's mobile OS.
"What if we actually built a version of Android that was tuned and optimized for these nonvolatile memory systems? We have a team that's doing that too," Fink said.
He didn't say more about the mobile plans and HP's near-term focus is likely to be servers. But Paul Teich, senior analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said memristors could potentially replace DRAM and flash in smartphones, reducing their cost and improving performance and battery life.
More than that, with a single memory type, smartphones and tablets could access data in the cloud as easily as if it were on the device itself.
"After The Machine architecture and OS are in place, at some point in the future, the theory is that when you connect a memristor based Android device to a network with high enough bandwidth, it will become a node in a cloud with immediate access to the rest of that cloud," Teich said. "It's a different model of looking at device capabilities. Nothing will need to be 'downloaded' unless you plan to be disconnected from the larger network."
"There is a lot of work for HP to marshal for the next few years to make this happen," he added.