Back in the day it didn’t take much for me to get excited about a new technology. The rapid progressions we saw from the late 90s through to the early 2010s had us all fervently awaiting the next big thing as it seemed nearly anything was within our grasp. The combination of getting older and being disappointed a certain number of times hardened me against this optimism and now I routinely attempt to avoid the hype for anything I don’t feel is a sure bet. Indeed I said much the same about HP’s The Machine last year and it seems my skepticism has paid dividends although I can’t say I feel that great about it.
For the uninitiated HP’s The Machine was going to be the next revolutionary step in computing. Whilst the mockups would be familiar to anyone who’s seen the inside of a standard server those components were going to be anything but, incorporating such wild technologies as memristors and optical interconnects. What put this above many other pie in the sky concepts (of which I include things like D-Wave’s quantum computers as the jury is still out on whether or not they’re providing a quantum speedup) is that it was based on real progress that HP had made in many of those spaces in recent years. Even that wasn’t enough to break through my cynicism however.
And today I found out I was right, god damnit.
The reasons cited were ones I was pretty sure would come to fruition, namely the fact that no one has been able to commercialize memristors at scale in any meaningful way. Since The Machine was supposed to be almost solely based off of that technology it should be no surprise that it’s been canned on the back of that. Now instead of being the moonshot style project that HP announced last year it’s instead going to be some form of technology demonstrator platform, ostensibly to draw software developers across to this new architecture in order to get them to build on it.
Unfortunately this will likely end up being not much more than a giant server with a silly amount of RAM stuffed into it, 320TB to be precise. Whilst this may attract some people to the platform out of curiosity I can’t imagine that anyone would be willing to shell out the requisite cash on the hopes that they’d be able to use a production version of The Machine sometime down the line. It would be like the Sony Cell processor all over again instead of costing you maybe a couple thousand to experiment with it you’d be in the tens of thousands, maybe hundreds, just to get your hands on some experimental architecture. HP might attempt to subsidise that but considering the already downgraded vision I can’t fathom them throwing even more money at it.
HP could very well turn around in 5 or 10 years with a working prototype to make me look stupid and, honestly, if they did I would very much welcome it. Whilst predictions about Moore’s Law ending happen at an inverse rate to them coming true (read: not at all) it doesn’t mean there isn’t a few ceilings we’ve seen on the horizon that will need to be addressed if we want to continue this rapid pace of innovation. HP’s The Machine was one of the few ideas that could’ve pushed us ahead of the curve significantly and its demise is, whilst completely expected, still a heart wrenching outcome.
Whilst computing has evolved exponentially in terms of capabilities and raw computing performance the underlying architecture that drives it has remained largely the same for the past 30 years. The vast majority of platforms are either x86 or some other CISC variant running on a silicon wafer that’s been lithographed to have the millions (and sometimes billions) of transistors etched into it. This is then all connected up to various other components and storage through the various bus definitions, most of which have changed dramatically in the face of new requirements. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this model, it’s served us well and has fallen within the bounds of Moore’s Law for quite some time, however there’s always the nagging question of whether or not there’s another way to do things, perhaps one that will be much better than anything we’ve done before.
According HP their new concept, The Machine, is the answer to that question.
For those who haven’t yet read about it (or watched the introductory video on the technology) HP’s The Machine is set to be the next step in computing, taking the most recent advances in computer technology and using them to completely rethink what constitutes a computer. In short there are 3 main components that make it up, 2 of which are based on technology that have yet to see a commercial application. The first appears to be a Sony Cell like approach to computing cores, essentially combining numerous smaller cores into one big computing pool which can then be activated at will, technology which currently powers their Moonshot range of servers. The second piece is optical interconnects, something which has long been discussed as the next stage in computing but as of yet hasn’t really made in roads at the level HP is talking about. Finally the idea of “universal memory” which is essentially memristor storage which HP Labs has been teasing for some time but has failed to bring any product to light.
As an idea The Machine is pretty incredible, taking the best of breed technology for every subsystem of the traditional computer and putting it all together in the one place. HP is taking the right approach with it too as whilst The Machine might share some common ancestry with regular computers (I’m sure the “special purpose cores” are likely to be x86) current operating systems make a whole bunch of assumptions that won’t be compatible with its architecture. Thankfully they’ll be open sourcing Machine OS which means that it won’t be long before other vendors will be able to support it. It would be all too easy for them to create another HP-UX, a great piece of software in its own right that no one wants to touch because it’s just too damn niche to bother with. That being said however the journey between this concept and reality is a long one, fraught with the very real possibility of it never happening.
You see whilst all of these technologies that make up The Machine might be real in one sense or another 2 of them have yet to see a commercial release. The memristor based storage was “a couple years away” after the original announcement by HP however here we are, some 6 years later, and not even a prototype device has managed to rear its head. Indeed HP said last year that we might see memristor drives in 2018 if we’re lucky and the roadmap shown in the concept video shows the first DIMMs appearing sometime in 2016. Similar things can be said for optical interconnects as whilst they’ve existed at the large scale for some time (fibre interconnects for storage are fairly common) they have yet to be created for the low level type of interconnects that The Machine would require. HP’s roadmap to getting this technology to market is much less clear, something which HP will need to get right if they don’t want the whole concept to fall apart at the seams.
Honestly my scepticism comes from a history of being disappointed by concepts like this with many things promising the world in terms of computing and almost always failing to deliver on them. Even some of the technology contained within The Machine has already managed to disappoint me with memristor storage remaining vaporware despite numerous publications saying it was mere years away from commercial release. This is one of those times that I’d love to be proven wrong though as nothing would make me happier than to see a true revolution in the way we do computing, one that would hopefully enable us to do so much more. Until I see real pieces of hardware from HP however I’ll remain sceptical, lest I get my feelings hurt once again.